Monday, April 28, 2008

a case of the mondays

Here are some numbers that aren't nice to wake up to:
Print circulation continues on its steep downward slide, the Audit Bureau of Circulations revealed this morning in releasing the latest numbers for some of the country's largest dailies in the six-month period ending March 31, 2008. When a full analysis appears it is expected to find, according to sources, the biggest dip yet, about 3.5% daily and 4.5 for Sunday.

Break the numbers down and they don't look much better. A selection:

The New York Times lost more than 150,000 copies on Sunday. Circulation on that day fell a whopping 9.2% to 1,476,400. The paper's daily circulation declined 3.8% to 1,077,256.

In Los Angeles, the Times lost more than 40,000 daily copies. Daily circulation there was down 5.1% to 773,884. Sunday declined 6.0% to 1,101,981.

Daily and Sunday circulation at the Chicago Tribune both dropped 4.4% to 541,663 and 898,703, respectively.

The Miami Herald reported daily circulation lost more than 11% with 240,223 copies while Sunday dropped 9% to 311,245.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

it's important to remember: what we do is still a threat

With so much depressing news about the slipping influence of journalism, it's important to realize that what we do is still threatening to many. Stephan Bevan's first-person report of being arrested and held in Zimbabwe for "practicing journalism" is a good reminder that what we do is still important:
I had been there for only an hour when there was an urgent knock on the door. It was one of the staff. "The police are here. You should leave - you can go through the gate in the garden." I grabbed my laptop and backpack and headed towards the garden. But I had taken only a few steps when, from behind me, someone barked: "Where are you going? Stay where you are."

Suddenly, there were police everywhere, some carrying guns. I was surrounded.

Bearak told me later that there were more than 40 police. One, Jasper Musademba, had threatened to shoot him if he left the hotel room. While they were busy with Bearak, I asked one of the staff to alert the British embassy. Meanwhile, across the city, the feared secret service, the CIO, were raiding the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's centre of operations. President Mugabe's regime was tightening its grip and we were like flies caught in its web.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

building a newsroom from scratch

A fascinating article by Chicagoan Geoff Dougherty documents how he's been building the Chi-Town Daily News from nothing. It's a case study in how new news organizations will be built now--volunteers trained and tightly orchestrated through virtual means:
To my ongoing dismay, the Daily News doesn't have a helicopter. Or a cops reporter, or staff photographers. We're a two-year-old, nonprofit, online newspaper with an annual budget of less than $200,000 and an office full of thrift-store desks.

But we do have a network of three dozen citizen journalists spread throughout the city, and some powerful software that enables us to keep track of where they live and what they're interested in covering. That system allowed us to find a citizen journalist who lived near the building collapse and get him to the scene -- within minutes.

Welcome to the new frontier. I've made the point a number of times recently that truly successful online journalism is currently at the point that newspapers were at in the old west: one-person shows, deeply (and sometimes troublesomely) tied into the community. Transitioning an already-established paper to the medium is still difficult (hence all the job hemorrhaging) but a venture like the Daily News can start small and build organically in ways that big news organizations simply can't do.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Roll your own front-page-only newspaper

The brains at 37Signals document a way of leveraging the newly-opened Newseum's collection of 600 daily newspaper front pages into a customized PDF of the front pages of the day's papers of your choosing. It's a brilliant use (abuse?) of the technology behind the Newseum's collection, as well as yet another way of thinking about how we can access the news in this day and age.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Vanity Fair's Greenwash

Folio's Frank Locantore points out that Vanity Fair's latest "Green" issue fails to put its money where it's mouth is by printing on recycled paper:
Stories explaining what the Bush Administration should, or shouldn't, do; how mountain top coal mining is destroying communities and natural environs; oil drilling in the Artic; the necessity to act quickly in order to prevent climate change—all are important messages.

But where is the introspection and leadership? Who within CN and VF are pointing out that they themselves should be making an effort to reduce climate change, solid waste, deforestation and water and air pollution?

Magazine ad pages down, down, down

I've had a few conversations with people over the last few months that focus around the concept that magazines are weathering the digital storm better than newspapers, due to the niche-based business that magazines cultivate with their audience vs. the masses-based model of a daily newspaper. I've always found it odd that people would argue that point with me, seeing as how my very experience contradicts the point, but they do articulate it nonetheless.

Well, a report that some of the most profitable magazines out there took a punch to the gut on ad sales in the first quarter should do a good job of adding some sobering facts to the discussion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Torch vs. Twitter

Twitter proved itself to be quite useful today, as Mindy McAdams points out, by giving on-the-spot updates of the position of the Olympic Torch and the protests surrounding it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Hail Brittanica

Leave it to media as old as the Encyclopedia Brittanica to host a very interesting and very current debate about the future necessity and future viability of newspapers. They're adding new voices every day this week, but so far you can tune in and hear Nicholas Carr saying:
But while it’s true that the reduction in production and distribution costs is bringing us many more options, it would be a mistake to leap to the conclusion that nothing will be sacrificed in the process. More choices don’t necessarily mean better choices. Many cultural goods remain expensive to create or require the painstaking work of talented professionals, and it’s worth considering how the changing economics of media will affect them. Will these goods be able to find a large enough paying audience to underwrite their existence, or will they end up being crowded out of the marketplace by the proliferation of free, easily accessible products? Even though the Internet can in theory accommodate a nearly infinite variety of information goods, that doesn’t mean that the market will be able to support all of them.

Or Clay Shirky demanding:

What journalism needs now is not nostalgia but experimentation. It’s time to get on with the essential task of trying everything we can think of to create effective new models of reporting, ones that take the existing capabilities of the Internet for granted.

Jay Rosen offers:

I think it’s possible we will lose some of the public goods that newspapers under the old subsidy system were able to bring forward. People ask me about this all the time. (Because I’m a press critic, a scholar in journalism, and I write a blog about these issues.) When I tell them there’s no answer at the moment a strange look comes across their faces. A social problem with no answer? Is that even allowed?

So far the most controversial is Jon Talton's critical take:,

The notion that hundreds of part-time gadflies, blowhards, tub-thumpers, students and well-meaning good-government types can replace real journalism is silly. Much of the corporate media has embraced this fad for a simple reason: it costs less to have a housewife blog from the city council meeting for free.

But all of it is worth a read. Nice to see a very old dog learn some new tricks.

A lamp post plea

Monday, April 7, 2008

Mapping the news

Above is a map I built with Yahoo Pipes that takes news feeds (for this sample it's the International and US news feeds from Google News), scrapes the feeds for geographic information and plots that information on a map. As a result, it creates on-the-fly a map of the world's news.

It's not right all of the time (and when it's wrong, it's pretty comical, like the story on Princess Di's death which has hopped from Alaska to South America to the middle of the ocean during my time in building the system). But it's a powerful proof-of-concept that took a matter of minutes to build instead of a matter of days.

This type of dynamic geospatial presentation used to be the domain of programmers and computer scientists, most of whom didn't care enough about the news to try it. But now, with tools that can be quickly learned, it's possible to create sophisticated new ways of interpreting and presenting news.

These type of free tools allow the creation of a class of hacker-journalists, people able to leverage technology to help tell stories people need to hear. As people write about the downfall of traditional journalism, due to the destruction of newspapers, they tend to overlook the new types of journalists that are only beginning to emerge.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger

The New York Times plays the nattering-old-man card today with a guffaw-inducing story "exposing" the darker side of blogging: In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop

It is, of course, a ridiculous premise: that blogging creates an environment so competitive for a scoop that bloggers are dropping like flies from the stress of it all.

It's ridiculous because you need to consider the source: One of the leading news organizations in the world. Are the editors and the writers of the New York Times punch out calmly at 5:00, ready to head home and take it easy? Of course not. News is a stressful business. The pressures of deadlines and the competition that results from the need to get the story right and get the story fast are enormous. They are not a new phenomenon. And job stress certainly isn't unique to blogging. But the Times sure isn't going to tell you that. Instead, they're going to offer a much more newsprint-friendly story:

Drop a blog, save a life.

Marc Andreesen of Netscape and Ning fame offers up a few new hot scoops for the Times:

Future New York Times headline submissions from yours truly:

Blogging Causes Herpes

Bloggers Shorter than Normal People

Want To Contract Malaria? Try Blogging

Bloggers Have Bad Breath

Leprosy and Blogging May Be Connected

Hitler Probably Blogged

Now Bloggers Aren't Even Wearing Pajamas

Blogging Fad Almost Over

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Times' cynical crowdsourcing attempt

When the Clinton's finally released their tax returns from the last seven years yesterday, the New York Times was quick to toss a analysis up on their website and their (generally pretty great) political blog, The Caucus. The report (both the original and the updated version now available) ended with this line:

More on this to come, as we examine the documents. In the meantime, dig in and let us know what you find

That call to the audience to help sift through the documents is a classic example of crowdsourcing, utilizing the power of the masses to achieve a result that would have been difficult without them. In this case, it would be possible to utilize the millions of eyeballs reading the times to nearly instantaneously read and analyze the hundreds of pages of tax returns There are many examples of news organizations (and others) trying things like this.

The Times echoed the call again this morning in the very first sentence of The Caucus's "early word" first-post-of-the-day entry:

As news organizations (and you) pore over the Clinton tax returns,

The "you" there is a link back to the original piece, and the original problem: There's no actual place to report your findings. Sure, you can post your findings in the comments section but then they're lost amid the typical sniping and posturing that goes on there. And does the Times really have someone checking in there for useful information? Doubtful. Instead, it's a cynical attempt to look savvy, but to pretty much ignore the many possibilities that are created when you open up to the crowd.

So how should they have done it?

Well a good page can be taken from WNYC's use of the crowd in analyzing Clinton's White House schedules. While they too simply had people post to the comments, they gave direction and organization (pick your birthday and look at the corresponding date in her schedule) and as a result got some usable information that stood out from the comment noise.

Even better would be to create a structure less anarchic than the randomness of comments. Why not build a simple database organized by year and page number that people could enter their findings into? It could even be dynamically linked to and from the corresponding pages in the PDF files the Times provides. That database would then be open to the public, but also could be used by reporters in their work--the very reporters who could then offer qualitative analysis of the raw data instead of having to create it themselves.

Instead, the reporters are left to do the heavy lifting themselves and the audience is once again left on the sidelines, another missed opportunity for something greater.

As one news chain spirals into bankruptcy, the big question is "Who's Next?"

According to a report published today, the Journal-Register Company--one of those third-tier media empires you've never heard of but turns out owns over 300 papers--has brought on an investment bank as it considers filing for Chapter 11.

If the company were to seek bankruptcy protection, as analysts said was possible, it would be a first in recent memory for a publicly traded newspaper company, John Morton, a longtime newspaper analyst, said.

The holdings of the Journal-Register comprise "Greater Philadelphia, Michigan, Connecticut, Greater Cleveland and the mid-Hudson region of New York," and many of their titles seem to be the kind of ad circulars and free shoppers (personal favorite: The Penny Stretcher) that you would expect to be taking a beating in the 21st Century. But they also hold a cubic ton of tiny local papers, the exact kind that the "hyperlocal" argument says should be able to be leveraged to great advantage in the "competitive news environment" we find ourselves in now.

Now I have no doubt, just looking at the Journal-Register Company's website itself, that they weren't leveraging those assets very well online (a quick check at a random title confirms it, though I do appreciate the lead story: "Local canoe challenge will be tribute to legendary canoeist"), but the real question is can it be possible for any company like the Journal-Register to turn their ship around at this point? How can you innovate 300+ papers at the same time, without going under in the process?

I guess the real argument is simply this one: You're going under anyway, why not give it a try?

It's probably too late for the Journal-Register, but the next mid-tier chain should start trying to answer that question before it's too late for them too.

Friday, April 4, 2008

How does a news camera change your interaction with the world around you?

Let's ease back into the post-vacation postings with a story about how news can change a community--though not always for the better.