Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Our business is becoming more entrepreneurial all the time"

Via Romenesko:
"Entrepreneurial skills are essential for all journalists these days," says UC Berkeley j-prof Marcia Parker. "Our business is becoming more entrepreneurial all the time. I don't think j-schools do enough in this field. Many of our students are hungering for these skills. While not everyone will want to start their own businesses, they need to understand that drive and bring that spirit into even traditional newsrooms that are looking to create new editorial products and services."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The new news map

Go to Google News. Go ahead, do it now. I'll wait. Look at the lead story. As I write this, it's about McCain beating Romney in Florida. After a few links to the usual suspects (the Times, CNN, USA Today), it offers to show me "all 3,959 news articles" related to McCain's Florida victory. That story will also be the A1 story in almost every paper in the country tomorrow, and a majority of them will be written by a staffer, not the AP (though many will be wire service stories rewritten at least in part by that staffer).

Two decades ago, even one decade, that made sense. Your local paper was the only game in town, and if you wanted the story that's where you got it. But today? Today every paper in the country--hell, the world--is the same distance away from me. Why would I go to the Detroit Free-Press's version of that story? Or the San Francisco Chronicle's? Or one of the 3,957 other stories available? Every single one will essentially tell me the same thing--a few quotes may be different, but the main points will be the same. And if every one is the same and if every one is equidistant from me, why would I choose my local paper?

Sure, there's a certain amount of inertia that may lead me to my hometown broadsheet or tabloid but, ultimately, inertia wears away after a while (hell the Mac's even gaining market share again after two decades of Microsoft's inertia), and so the B and C and D and E and F level papers that are out there quickly begin to lose their competitive advantage, because their only advantage was a monopoly in their home market.

Right now that monopoly still exists in the printed paper, and so if a reader wants something to read on the bus to work or at a cafe, their local newspaper's got their 50 cents. But as the mobile web becomes more accessible that goes out the window as well.

So how do you save it? It's suddenly a new map, where the boundaries don't stop at your town's borders, but instead circle the globe. How do you save a paper that's gone from competing against one other (maybe, if you were lucky to live in a two-paper town) to suddenly competing against thousands?

You can't save it through web ads, because the eyeballs are too few. You don't save it through firewalls or subscriptions because disincentives will only reinforce the fact that your readers can get this stuff somewhere else. You don't save it by cutting muscle and bone, because a worse product can't help.

I think, ultimately, you CAN'T save it. And, as a result, the whole business comes toppling down.

Monday, January 28, 2008

monetize vs making money

37 Signals' David Heinemeier Hansson (the creator of Ruby on Rails) takes a hard shot at corporate web culture:
Only in the perverted world of the web can something as simple and fundamental as making money be in need of a fancy word like “monetize”. The most basic principle of business doesn’t need an exotic dress and an academic hat. Just a pair of working gloves.


Friday, January 25, 2008

NY Times mobile fumble

Odd that I blogged about the advances in mobile text in Japan earlier today, the same day the New York Times announced a major new text-message based initiative. While at a surface level, it's a step in the right direction, the Times marches straight into the limitations forced on text messages by US cell carriers, according to Text and Ideas' Nick Martin:
The Times ran out of room. With only 160 characters to work with in a typical text, it may be impossible to get the news, context and insight readers of the Times expect squeezed into a single text message.


Goin' Mobile

Five of the 10 bestsellers in Japan last year were novels written and read on mobile phones. Why Japan?
The boom appeared to have been fueled by a development having nothing to do with culture or novels but by cellphone companies’ decision to offer unlimited transmission of packet data, like text-messaging, as part of flat monthly rates.

That's all. Just a simple realization that putting a toll booth on usage will hamper use, and allowing unrestricted access will foster innovation. The possibilities for innovation are endless.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Keeping paid content alive

Rupert Murdoch might be a total creepshow, but he's also the last hope for paid content on the web, according to Romenesko:
"We are going to greatly expand and improve the free part of the Wall Street Journal online, but there will still be a strong offering" for subscribers, he says. "The really special things will still be a subscription service, and, sorry to tell you, probably more expensive."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

EveryBlock runs circles around other HyperLocal sites after one day

EveryBlock, a local news site, launched today and poses an interesting question:
In dense, bustling cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco, the number of daily media reports, government proceedings and local Internet conversations is staggering. Every day, a wealth of local information is created -- officials inspect restaurants, journalists cover fires and Web users post photographs -- but who has time to sort through all of that?

The answer, of course, should be journalists, but that type of super-focused, relevant-to-few beat reporting is a thing of the past. So the folks behind EveryBlock are hoping they can step in to fill the gap using, essentially, the entire Internet as an information-gathering vehicle. Can that type of relevant reporting be done using smart filters? It's too soon to tell, but if this collection of random events from a few block radius around my old home in Chicago is any indication, it's certainly going to become real competition for the ham-fisted "hyperlocal" attempts by the big newspapers.

For comparison, here's TribLocal's coverage of a south-suburban town. It's night and day: EveryBlock offers things that truly seem relevant--what crimes happened, what business licenses were applied for, who's running personal ads in my neighborhood--while TribLocal offers the same sort of "Andrew's cheerleaders take on the competition" pap that puts it more in competition with the local high school paper than something that supplies vital information.

The thing that's most interesting to me about the different approach EveryBlock is taking is that instead of relying on fresh user-generated content, as so much of the "hyperlocal" advocates advise, the site takes exactly the opposite approach: Reprinting and repurposing information from sites as diverse as city departments, Craigslist, Flickr, the department of transportation, and good ol' newspapers. Don't make people come to you with content, the EveryBlock concept says, go to where they're already making it and present it in new ways. It's not a new idea, but those are often the best ones.

New York Times buys into WordPress

The New York Times today announced that they helped to finance a $29.5 million stake in the for-profit arm of the opensource blogging software WordPress. While WordPress is great--it's the blogging software I tell most people starting out to use--I'm at a loss to understand how buying into its parent company is going to give the Times a distinct advantage over other media companies that choose to use the software. The powerful underlying software is freely available, but the .com aspect of WordPress (which is where the investment was made) is limited and doesn't scale well. Even the Times themselves don't quite seem to know why they've bought in:
Citing a potential application of the technology, Mr. Schneider said blog posts from across the Internet could be featured alongside stories on The Times’s Web site.

Last time I checked, Google was doing this already without buying stakes in other companies. So why does the Times need to drop a dime?

Monday, January 21, 2008

twitter as "microjournalism"

None other than the New York Times weighs in on Twitter as a tool for journalists to log mini reports from the presidential campaign trail. It's nice to see the technology behind Twitter being used in productive ways, as it too often resembles riding on a train with everyone talking on cell phones--the signal to noise ratio is often just too damn poor. But it's not a standalone technology for journalism--it can only be truly useful as a supplement to more fleshed out work.

Friday, January 18, 2008

hacking citizen journalism

Mother Jones has an interesting take on the downside of newspapers embracing citizen journalism:
If the elitist fortress-newsroom mentality held John Q. Public at arm's length, it also kept PR flacks and unqualified hacks out of the newsroom. By forcing their beleaguered staffs to depend on outsiders for content, then running the content without much editorial oversight, newspapers may be taken in by crackpots and sly marketers who make Jayson Blair look like a grade-school plagiarist.

Having worked with user-submitted content in print for over a decade--well before it was becoming ubiquitous on the Internet--I can say without hesitation that it's true. At Punk Planet, we received plenty of stories submitted in full or in part by band's PR representatives and record labels (sometimes even interviews performed by the band themselves!), by party-line toting activists, and plenty of folks with no facts whatsoever. It meant using more editorial discretion, not less, for exactly the reasons at the Mother Jones story outlines.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

more on the power of the commons

Sometimes I hit "publish" too quickly, before a thought has completely matured--that's certainly the case with the previous post. Because yeah, the Library of Congress photos are cool and all, but what's it got to do with journalism?

Ultimately, everything. It's a grand idea, harnessing users to do the heavy lifting on a project: it saves both money and time, expensive commodities in an ever-shrinking newsroom. But how do you apply it to news? Here's one idea, lifted directly from the new LOC/Flickr partnership:

Harness your readers to tag your stories. Throw the entire paper open for user tagging. Why? Because it will ultimately create an entirely new way to access your content. Allow tagged links to build a new information web, where opinion stories are linked with features across sections and cover dates; where unexpected connections are made through unpredictable links. It's too much work to dedicate staff, but if any reader could add their own tag terms it not only allows them to invest themselves in your content, but to utilize it more completely. Additionally, it builds a database with which to sell content-specific advertising against; one that's able to grow organically but doesn't require the processing power of a Google server cloud.

That's how the power of the commons can help to save journalism.

the power of the commons

The Library of Congress today announced a partnership with photo-sharing site Flickr to upload digital reproductions of thousands of photographs in the LOC's archives. The purpose goes further than PR (though it's great PR--all photos are freely available with no copyright restrictions, a public asset that will quickly be put to creative use at a massive scale), but instead to allow anyone to help to catalog the massive photo library using common-language tags.

It's a brilliant idea--harnessing the power of the crowd to help bring order to an undertaking that would normally take decades. Additionally, it helps to democratize a usually cloistered task, that of ordering information.

But more than that, it exhibits a trust in the commons--that shared place where people of all stripes have a stake and a claim--that the corporate media has yet to embrace. What a refreshing thing, to see a usually lumbering industry decide to step up and lead. Who will be the first to follow?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

new medium = new metrics

Jeff Jarvis looks at how various internet metrics allow unique looks into the popularity of various presidential candidates. In addition to a unique look at the election, it's also a great crib sheet for how to compile metrics about just about anything.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

"We don’t know if it will last forever"

Michael Miner's Hot Type column this week (the last good reason to still read the Chicago Reader) looks inside the Chicago Tribune through the eyes of the paper's rank-and-file. With its profiles of a guy who hands out the free commuter paper, of two men who drive paper routes, and of a foreign correspondent, it's well worth a read, if for no other reason than as an artifact of the end-of-days of the traditional newspaper business.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

thinking differently at the BBC

The BBC has taken a page from Google's 20% time concept (where all engineers at the company get to spend a day a week on their own projects) and is allowing certain staffers (sounds like mainly their new-media folks--why not spread it through the whole newsroom) to spend 10% of their time working on new ideas.

It's a brilliant idea that has already produced one concrete product (an iPhone-optimized podcast page) with more great ideas to come, I'm sure.

Hearing this reminds me of the origins of Richard Koci Hernandez's Mercury News Photo website. After having the idea of some webspace dedicated exclusively to photography and multimedia rejected by management, Hernandez and another colleague at the San Jose Mercury News decided to build it anyway, dedicating countless nights and weekends to building a website from scratch (they had to teach themselves everything). Once it was completed, they went back to management and said, essentially, "You know that site we told you about? Well, it's done. Can we use the newspaper's name on it?" And they demoed the site for management, got the OK to use the logo, and went live, hosting the site on servers they paid for out-of-pocket. The site now garners tons of hits and does multimedia journalism better than almost any other news site I've seen.

It's exactly this type of thinking that will save existing newspapers and magazines. The next great idea is lurking among your own colleagues and staff, they just need to be given the time to make it a reality (along with the leeway to make mistakes along the way). With new cuts being announced every day and seemingly no new ideas forthcoming, what's the risk?

(BBC story originally via Teaching Online Journalism)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Chicago Sun Times is a Canary in a Coal Mine. But which Coal Mine?

With the news announced last week that the Chicago Sun Times will be laying off 20% of its newsroom staff in order to cut costs (this in addition to reducing the physical size of the newspaper to pay less for paper), many are saying that the fate of the paper reflects the fate of the industry, hurt by shrinking ad dollars and declining readership. A story in competitor paper the Chicago Tribune even goes so far to (conveniently) end on the idea that Chicago may become a one-newspaper town.

It's a brutal story, to be sure. Nearly 40 jobs will be lost, a level of cutting that can not help but affect the quality of the paper significantly. And it's a story that's following the same narrative we hear everywhere--the Internet is killing newspapers--so then why is it that veteran Sun Times critic Roger Ebert blames not the Internet, but instead says this:

"I hope everyone who is a victim of this triage receives handwritten apologies from Conrad Black and David Radler"

Remember, the Sun Times was part off the massive scandal surrounding Hollinger International, where Black was reported to have embezzled 97% of the media chain's profits. (A scandal, by the way, that prompted Ebert to write a series of incredible letters to Black at the time)

How much of the Sun Times current fiscal crisis is linked to the destruction that Black leveled on the paper? How much of many newspapers' current state of affairs is linked not to the changes brought about by the Internet, but instead by the hole dug by deep mismanagement from their media conglomerate owners?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Analyzing Analytics

"Under the new rules, the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit," Edward Wasserman writes in an op-ed in the Miami Herald. He's talking about the brave new world of what he calls "Calibrated Journalism"--the ability to track and analyze readers and page views to judge what's being read and cater accordingly.
we're used to seeing well-loved offerings on commercial media dumped if they don't pull enough people -- or enough of the right people - to keep advertisers satisfied. That's how network TV works.

Still, although network executives re-jigger their Tuesday prime time lineup to please advertisers, editors aren't supposed to redraw their Tuesday front page for the same reason. The journalism business has been different. Although news and commentary offer a setting both for public discourse and sales pitches, traditional ad-supported journalism has worked despite that disharmony, as long as editorial content is passably free of corruption.

There are, of course, great things about being able to track content in the ways that technologies like Google Analytics allow, but certainly it's a sword with two edges and the power that it allows can certainly be used in all the wrong ways.

This argument is echoed in Kira Wisniewski's great essay, "Yellow Journalism 2.0", where she says:

Maybe at this point we’re not quite there just yet, but just like how Hearst and Pulitzer drummed up newspaper circulation in the late nineteenth century by sensationalizing the news, it’s only a matter of time before a new dawn is upon us once traditional news organizations take notice of what’s getting the most hits.

So how can these new ways of understanding readership help journalism instead of hurt it? By looking beyond the simple numbers. The depth and sophistication available in web-page analytics allows for an understanding of who's visiting your site far beyond any previous system for analyzing readers. Those numbers, however, still need interpretation by people that are willing to give them the time.

For instance, a hot story about a celebrity dogfight may bring in a lot of readers, but are those readers valuable? They'll pop in to see the one story, but how many stick around? Dig further into your analytics and you can see the numbers of truly dedicated readers and what they're reading. Dig further still and you can see where they're coming from--universities? other countries? Still further you can discover just how much time they're spending on your site and how many pages they're looking at.

All of these pieces of data mean much more than a simple spike a single story's readers and need to be taken seriously. If you base your decisions on simple hype spikes, you've turned your editorial over to mob rule--and lost your real readers in the process.

(Wasserman piece via Romanesko)

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Karp's Year Ahead

Publishing 2.0's Scott Karp offers an exhaustive look at how various Journalism blogs are framing the rapidly approaching future:
This is the year that the journalists who will embrace the challenge of transforming journalism for the digital age will be separated from those who are waiting to take the buyout. This year will break the back of the old newsroom culture that was supported by monopoly distribution economics, which have been destroyed.

It's a good read throughout, with tons of great links to others bright ideas.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

taking the shirt off your back

While the web is certainly the space where most people are experimenting with new forms of journalism, it's always nice to see a new idea take place back in the physical world as well.

It doesn't get much more physical than Swedish magazine T-Post, which prints a news story on the inside of a T-shirt, then asks an artist to interpret the story for the art on the front of the shirt. It's a brilliant idea, one that connects the culture of shirt collectors with ideas weightier than the latest Threadless release.

Friday, January 4, 2008

digital looks fondly back on print

Web designer Jeffery Zeldman makes the bold statement that "self publishing is the new blogging". It's, of course, a statement that me and many others have been making for longer than blogging has actually existed. Yes, it's pie-in-the-sky and yes, it's naive, but it's still nice to hear someone else make the argument for a change. After all:
When you’ve flown that far from Gutenberg, the only place to travel is back.