Reinventing the Newsroom

Quick Thoughts on Bezos Buying the Post

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on August 5, 2013

(cross-posted from my Tumblr)

A couple of blocks from my house there’s a park where people play soccer. A few years ago the city put down artificial turf there, replacing what had been an expanse of dust and scattered scraggly grass. A few people raised a ruckus about this, complaining about the environment, aesthetics, and what have you. They wanted the city to maintain natural grass that could stand up to constant soccer, frisbee, families, etc. It didn’t deter them in the least that this was impossible — the only real choice was between artificial turf or dust.

Which brings me to the Washington Post. Yes, some people are concerned about the owner of Amazon controlling the paper that’s still the premier read in the nation’s capital, where lobbyists reign and laws are made. Some people have reacted to the news by decrying Amazon’s labor practices, economic models, effect on industries it’s subverted, etc.

All points worth making, but they ignore something fundamental: The choice for the Post — like the vast majority of legacy metro newspapers — was between artificial turf and dust. The Post wasn’t going to get bigger. It wasn’t going to turn nimbly to try new things. It wasn’t going to be able to reinvent itself against a fleet of smaller competitors, each zeroing in on a chunk of its business without having to worry about shoring up a larger enterprise. No, the Post was going to keep getting smaller and smaller while trying to bridge its own contradictions.

Now, assuming Jeff Bezos will spend more of his own money than the $250 million he’s already plunked down, the Post has money and time to experiment and try to become something new. Which means it has a chance to survive.

The Post no longer has to answer to shareholders, who have done enormous damage to newspapers by assuming that the profits from an anomalous period in history were the norm. And if Bezos brings the same acumen to the news business that he’s brought to every other business that’s now part of the Amazon empire, the Post will have a chance to radically reinvent itself in ways it wasn’t going to be able to explore so long as it was run as a publicly traded company or by career newspaper people.

That’s not an indictment of the Post’s previous owners; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the enormous challenge facing today’s news organizations.

The modern newspaper is doomed, but it’s been living on borrowed time for decades. That’s because the traditional newspaper business isn’t really about information, let alone civics or democracy. It’s about printing and distribution within geographic protections. And the failure to understand that — or, more fairly, to be able to act on that understanding — is what’s devastated the news business.

For a couple of centuries, if you wanted to sell something — a bale of hay or a couch or a Chevy — the only practical way to do it was to pay your local printing-and-distribution monopolist for an ad.

Some people are happy reading nothing but bundles of ads, but most people aren’t. So the printing-and-distribution monopolists looked for other information to go around those ads. They hired people to write about sports and review movies and recount crimes and talk about who was visiting whom and opine about politics and sometimes to explain complicated stuff happening far away. The printing-and-distribution monopolists created bundles of information designed to appeal to people in the geographic area they controlled. Very few people in that area were interested in all of that information, but enough of them were interested in some of it to buy the paper and see the ads and keep the people who bought the ads happy.

That industry no longer exists. The printing and distribution monopoly has been shattered — it’s been replaced by my phone, of all things. Geography no longer limits the information available to me — that same phone will bring me information from the entire world. With the exception of small local papers, the newspaper industry continues to exist because of the habits and sentimental attachments of an ever-shrinking segment of aging readers. It’s not dead, but it’s doomed.

The news industry, on the other hand, is alive — in fact, it’s thriving. But it’s been forcibly separated from the revenue streams that allowed it to exist. New ones have to be discovered. We don’t know where they’ll be found or what they’ll pay for. But the people who are going to discover them will be the people who work in new digital industries, not the custodians of vanished ones.

They’ll be people like Jeff Bezos. At least let’s hope so.

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How Breaking News Is Changing

Posted in Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on April 16, 2013

I’ve been doing some work with my old friends and colleagues at Poynter, and wound up pitching in with their coverage of yesterday’s terrible events in Boston. Which got me thinking about breaking news and how it’s changing with readers seeing each step of the newsgathering process. My take is here.

For anyone who stumbles across this, this blog is now updated fairly rarely. You can keep up with my adventures writing, editing and (occasionally) consulting over at my Tumblr, Jason Fry’s Dorkery. Or follow me on Twitter.

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FiveThirtyEight on Horse-Race Journalism

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on November 3, 2012

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr)

Nate Silver, the writer/statistician behind the very fine FiveThirtyEight blog, has found himself in a number of crosshairs of late. His politically motivated attackers are risible zealots unworthy of discussion, but things are more interesting when you consider the attacks and the passive-aggressive grumbles from political journalists. (Oh, and the New York Times’ public editor called him on the carpet for a Twitter bet, though as a fellow ombudsman I’m not touching that one.)

The argument within journalism is almost an exact replay of one that’s exceedingly familiar to Silver: the “Moneyball” scouts vs. stats debate within baseball.

Deadspin’s David Roher connects the two debates in this post, which is gleefully profane and very sharp. And here’s Mark Coddington on the fault lines between Silver and political journalists.

If you’ve followed baseball over the last decade or so, you’ll instantly see it’s the exact same debate.

For the old baseball scouts who trust their eyes and their guts, sub “the savvy,” the journalists who assemble narratives from interviews, observations and their own experience — their ears and their guts, if you will. For the baseball stats guys, sub folks like Silver who wade into polls and try to weigh bias, calculate probabilities and make predictions.

Here’s the thing, though: This debate actually ended a long time ago in baseball. Every front office has people who mine advanced stats and try to value players objectively. Some front offices give it more weight than others, but all of them understand the value of the Moneyball approach and take at least some heed of its lessons. The debate only continues among hack columnists and announcers, intellectual refusenik fans and people who know better but can’t resist fighting with them.

So what about journalism? Well, I suppose it’s progress that FiveThirtyEight now appears under the umbrella of the New York Times. But some elbows are getting thrown beneath its shelter. Here’s Silver today, turning a merciless eye on the latest batch of battleground state polls and explaining what has to be wrong with their methodology for Mitt Romney to be elected on Tuesday night. And here are Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, opening with a breathless fusillade of words about “a stubborn landscape of competitive states that right to the end are producing equal shares of hope and fear amid conflicting signals about the outcome.”

The intellectual disconnect is startling, to say the least. The mission of both articles is to inform readers of one of the world’s marquee newspapers about the state of the race. But their conclusions are diametrically opposed. And the fact that they’re sitting side by side tells me that journalism has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to baseball in terms of how to measure what matters.

The thing is, measuring what matters is much harder in baseball. Even a bright child understands that the popular vote has nothing to do with the Electoral College. To be fair, Zeleny and Rutenberg don’t mention the popular vote — they focus on the battleground states. But their story is almost entirely the stuff of the savvy: a narrative about the race so far, details of travel schedules and snippets from speeches, and windows into the hopes and fears of well-placed campaign insiders. It’s a compelling narrative, but one built almost entirely of qualification with precious little quantification — and in the end, Election Day is nothing but quantification.

Perhaps Silver has been more annoyed by his critics than he’s let on, because he closes today’s post with a devastating critique of the kind of journalism his colleagues are practicing: “If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.”

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Sad News Out of New Orleans

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on May 24, 2012

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr.)

I can see a lot of folks are coming here because they’re searching for Bruce Nolan. I mention Bruce down below — he taught me a ton when I was a kid, and I’m grateful to him — but I suspect you’re looking for the audio of Bruce’s passionate, angry, broken-hearted speech about the changes at the Times-Picayune. You can find that here, via David Carr in the New York Times. You should hear it — everyone in journalism should. After you do, I hope you’ll come back and read this.

This fall, the New Orleans Times-Picayune will cease publishing print papers daily and move to three print days a week, stepping up 24-7 operations on its web site. According to the New York Times’ David Carr, editor Jim Amoss will leave once the transition is complete, along with two managing editors. There will be staff cuts, size to be determined, at a paper that’s already seen its newsroom shrink in the aftermath of Katrina.

Which makes this a sad day for newspapers, and for me personally.

I’ll get the me stuff out of the way first: My first professional journalism job was at the Times-Picayune as a summer intern in 1989, and I may possibly have been the greenest intern in the history of green interns — not to mention one of the most mouthy, arrogant and generally obnoxious.

I was redeemed, to the extent that was possible, by attention and instruction and firm correction from a lot of folks at the Times-Picayune: Besides Jim, who took a chance on me, there were Peter Kovacs, Bruce Nolan, Jed Horne, Keith Woods, Paul Bartels, Jeannette Hardy, Chris Cooper, John Pope, Jonathan Eig and others I’ve shamefully neglected to mention because of age and time elapsed. Most of all, there was Kris Gilger, my first bureau chief and the kind of mentor every kid should pray to get. Kris was formidable and not to be crossed — I was terrified of her — but she also had your back, no matter what.

My two summers at the Times-Picayune put me on the right road as a journalist, and I’m forever grateful to the folks who pointed the way and taught me to steer. It’s heartbreaking to think of that newsroom being much reduced, particularly in a city whose peculiar institutions need aggressive, tough, full-time watchdogs.

Yet at the same time, I object to the reflexive view among news observers that fewer days in print is the same as the death of the Times-Picayune. That’s unfair to those who must keep the paper going as more of its operations shift to digital, and it’s unwise given the tidal wave of change remaking the news industry.

The signs of trouble for the newspaper industry have been abundantly clear for years. The print business is disappearing, to be replaced by a flock of digital experiments whose most optimistic outcome still guarantees smaller newsrooms. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not, and that’s been obvious for a long time. Yes, I mourn the news about the Picayune. But that isn’t the same as thinking Newhouse is wrong — in broad outline — about what needs to be done.

The question, then, is exactly what Newhouse will do. And that makes me worried all over again. The Times-Picayune was profitable — which doesn’t exempt it from the overall industry’s future, but ought to have argued for less-radical surgery. Instead, that surgery reportedly will follow the procedure Newhouse used in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s a plan I thought was unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic AnnArbor.com felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city. And the disrespect shown for T-P staff, most of whom learned about their paper’s future through the New York Times, is deplorable.

Given all that, I can’t think of any particular reason for optimism that Newhouse will get it right this time. And that’s a double dose of unhappiness.

Goodbye to Most of That

Posted in Uncategorized by reinventingthenewsroom on March 1, 2012

Time to make what was all too obvious official: This blog is going on semi-permanent hiatus.

Reinventing the Newsroom began as part of my work for EidosMedia, as my place to explore trends in digital journalism. But I no longer work for Eidos (though I continue to hold them and their work in high esteem), and I’ve largely moved on from digital-journalism explorations as well.

The reasons? There are several.

The major reason is that I’m increasingly focused on my own writing. I started writing Star Wars books when I was still at The Wall Street Journal Online, and what began as a hobby has become more of a career, or at least I’m trying to make it one. I write stories set in various established universes, as well as ones that spring entirely from my own head, not to mention essays about music, baseball, travel or anything else that catches my eye. Give me a chance to tell a story — fiction or non — and I’m happy.

If this is a change, it’s a change back to what brought me into journalism in the first place. My rather odd digital-journalism career was something of an accident. I joined WSJ.com when it was still a free, standalone section (the Money & Investing Update), and I was in the right place to take on a variety of responsibilities as the site grew and changed. I became an editor, columnist and blogs guru, as well as the editorial guy in meetings about technology projects and business-side initiatives, because I was able to understand what the developers and marketers wanted and assess that in terms of what the newsroom could deliver. That hybrid existence was useful for the Online Journal and useful for me, but it took me further and further from what I’d originally wanted to do, which was to find things out and write stories about what I’d found. Few of us pick our career paths, but when we can choose directions, it’s good to remember what originally made us so passionate.

I also came to accept something else that I’d been trying to ignore for a while: As a full-time pursuit, being an unaffiliated guide on the side was just too frustrating for me.

Part of this was the head-against-the-wall feeling that most newspapers aren’t going to change in the way they need to — not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they simply can’t.

I say that with sympathy, not disdain.

The traditional newspaper is a compendium of news, information and entertainment intended to make use of expensive printing-and-distribution infrastructure and tailored for a general, approximately defined audience restricted by geography. Now, think how much has changed in that sentence: Printing and distribution costs are now trivial, geography no longer limits readership, and audiences can be defined — or define themselves — with great precision. As a result, the very model of the traditional newspaper has been called into question.

Traditional newspapers now have to defend every part of their rather amorphous businesses against a host of small, digital-first competitors focused on taking one small part of that business and doing it better. They’ve been beaten time and time again in that competition, and I think they will continue to be. The outlook is brighter for small local papers and the big entities with glittering brand names, but in other cases I’ve come to doubt how much consultants like me can help.

While I was slowly coming to that realization, I was also increasingly focusing on sports news in the digital world. That began with a weekly digital-sportswriting column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, and has continued in my role as an ombudsman for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, ESPN’s partnership with the Poynter Institute. Digital gurus who don’t understand sports are missing essential trends and experiments they need to know about: There is no longer any serious argument within sports departments about the need to be digital-first, the rhythms and metabolism of sports coverage and consumption are now almost wholly digital, and the audience demand for up-to-the-minute sports information and analysis is off the charts compared with any other aspect of the news industry. If you want to know where the future of news is brightest, it’s right here.

Assessing my first couple of years as a digital guru/consultant/what-have-you, it was obvious to me that a role working with ESPN and Poynter would be a much more effective use of my time than what I’d been doing. ESPN has used its considerable resources to nurture long-form sportswriting, storytelling through video and infographics, and old-fashioned local beat coverage in more and more cities. These are exactly the kind of endeavors I’d encouraged and celebrated on my own, and ESPN struck me as a far better bet than existing newspapers or independent blogs to be shaping those trends five years from now. I love independent blogs (I’m an indie blogger myself, after all) and I was raised as a newspaper true believer, but I saw I could have more impact standing up for journalistic values, spotlighting good work and helping diagnose issues in a relationship with ESPN than I could on my own.

I know this probably isn’t forever. My ombudsman tenure will end, the life of a fiction writer/essayist/freelance journalist is uncertain, and I continue to care deeply about what happens to the news industry. I’ve got pixels in my blood, as well as some ink. But if there’s a return to the news world in my future, it’ll be all in — as a member of a newsroom again, trying to help my organization navigate digital challenges and opportunities, and using that platform to find things out and tell stories about them. If a news organization I felt I could help came calling, I’d certainly listen.

And absent that, well, I’ve got plenty to do. I’m working on an interesting ESPN piece for Poynter Review, with a list of ideas beyond that. I’m excited to start chronicling the daily doings of the Mets again. I just sent a young-adult novel to my agent, and returned edits on a Star Wars project. I’ve got a long list of articles and essays I want to tear into. And hey, maybe someone will need a consultant, and I’ll think I can actually help. But for now, time to hang the Gone Writin’ sign on Reinventing the Newsroom’s door. Heartfelt thanks to everybody who stopped by over the years to read, comment, argue or link.

If you want to keep up with my writing (bless you), you can do so on my Tumblr, read Faith and Fear in Flushing, or visit my personal site. You can also get me via Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Dean Starkman and the Future of News

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on November 10, 2011

For reasons personal and professional (not to mention existential), I’ve largely taken a hiatus from discussing the future of news — more on that soon. But I can’t let Dean Starkman’s CJR examination of news today and the FON (that’s Future of News) crowd go by without a few comments.

For the most part, I thought Starkman’s critique was clear-eyed, smart and even-handed. (Disclosure: We were colleagues at different arms of the Wall Street Journal an age ago, and I know him and admire his work.)

I agree with all of his main points:

Like Dean, I’m worried that we’re in danger of losing a critical mass of accountability journalism, particularly given the difficulties smaller news outfits will face in trying to replace it — my take on this is here.

Like Dean, I worry about how local reporting will get done. There’s no shortage of people happy to cover the Red Sox out of love, but good luck getting the same folks to cover Pawtucket City Hall. (As Starkman notes in a good laugh line, he’s covered that august institution, and you had to pay him.) I sure as hell don’t want to see coverage of local government agencies left to the agencies themselves and local eccentrics armed with tin-foil hats and WordPress accounts.

Like Dean, I’m suspicious of many critiques of storytelling and the supposed hierarchy of authority implicit in it. A principle of reporting, nicely articulated by Jay Rosen and cited by Starkman, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” At least in terms of journalism, that’s where storytelling’s authority comes from. To this, add the reality that the vast majority of people want to consume content and have no interest in creating it — a point digerati often miss, dismiss, or see as a problem that needs solving. And we haven’t even touched questions about skills needed to tell a story responsibly and/or entertainingly.

Like Dean, I think many paywall criticisms have been myopic. (Disclosure: I’ve worked for WSJ.com and Press+.) I do think it’s critical to understand how newsrooms have been historically funded: For example, Clay Shirky’s explanation of how advertisers subsidized overseas war reporting by accident should be required reading. With this understanding, news organizations’ efforts to get readers to pay for this work have a better chance of succeeding; without it, those organizations often retreat into the comfortable trap of thinking of their reporting as a pillar of civil society, which might be true but carries no guarantee that anyone will pay for it. That said, however, I don’t get how journalism thinkers can wax rhapsodic about new digital tools and their earthshaking effect on society in one post, then tell us in another that readers’ habits about paying for things are fixed and immutable.

Like Dean, I think hamster-wheel journalism has led to a tragic lack of focus by overburdened reporters too tired or cowed to protest — my take on this is here, with a caveat down below.

And finally, like Dean, I hope that workable 21st-century journalism emerges from some combination of institutional efforts and the powers of networked readers.

I disagree with Dean, though, on a few points.

First off, I think his treatment of whether or not news is a commodity demanded more nuance. The fact is that not all news is created equal. Is an investigative story that took months to come together commodity news? Obviously not. Neither is a clear-eyed analysis of local budgetary policy, a lyrical feature, or a good column. (And this is why I think all of these forms are currently undervalued, and will return to prominence.) But with most papers, many articles remain much the same (if not identical) to ones you can find lots of other places. A generation ago this didn’t matter, as geography protected papers from competition. But with those geographical protections gone, every paper now competes with every other paper for readers, and a lot of me-too coverage has been revealed for what it is. (This is just one reason the AP is in trouble.) This state of affairs is forcing papers to ask hard questions — or rather, it should be. The classic example of such a question is how many movie critics we really need, but there are others. How many sportswriters do we need at the World Series? How many stories about spring gardening in the Northeast? How many Washington reporters? This is where Jeff Jarvis’s coinage “do what you do best and link to the rest” makes sense as a blueprint for news organizations in a networked system.

Speaking of that networked system of news, hasn’t it progressed pretty far? The idea that the New York Times would collaborate with a non-profit organization to publish a lengthy article under its own banner would have seemed the stuff of science fiction a decade ago; Sheri Fink’s epochal 2009 Katrina story won a Pulitzer, with no particular fuss over the arrangement. Rather than act as if rivals don’t exist, writers retweet competitors’ stories and curate them in roundups. Topic-specific Twitter feeds even put rival papers’ headlines on section fronts. We’re not at “do what you do best and link to the rest” yet, largely because of the conservatism of established, print-centric players, but we sure seem to be moving toward it. And these changes pale compared to what will be ushered in by the atomization of brands — rather than visit news organizations’ sites as destinations, I now get a huge amount of my news an article at a time, retrieved from a river of information created by my friends and peers. Forget arguing about paywalls — we better figure out how to pay for news as bits and pieces that travel, rather than as treasures locked away in destination-site vaults.

* Finally, there’s the hamster wheel. Dean thinks the years of panic are behind the news industry, but I’m not so sure about that — for panic is what keeps the hamster wheel spinning. Yes, too many journalists are stuck with a long multimedia checklist for each assignment — filing for multiple entities, chatting, commenting, promoting stories, gathering data, shooting video, doing podcasts, and so forth. All this frenetic generation of content arguably robs them of the chance to dig more deeply into stories and offer better analysis — the very things, ironically, that might make their articles signals amid the me-too noise. But I think this is less a blueprint for the future than it is a snapshot of current bad management. All of the skills on that checklist are useful, and today’s journalists should be conversant with all of them, or at least not hostile to learning. But, again, not all stories are created equal. A few stories are excellent candidates to serve as the centerpieces of packages including audio, video, data and robust debate, but most are just fine as simple articles — or short videos with minimal text, or what have you. Journalists — at least those not led by craven, unimaginative bosses — will learn to pick and choose, and regain some of their focus.

Or at least I sure hope they will.

* * *

Since we’re talking the future of news, I’ve collected 19 of my best National Sports Journalism Center columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from AmazonBN.comSmashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!

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Further Thoughts on Teams as Publishers

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on September 18, 2011

Last week I wrote a column for Poynter looking back at my two years writing about digital sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center. When I began writing my NSJC columns, I thought the clash between the mainstream media and indie bloggers would be a subject I’d come back to again and again. But that didn’t happen; instead, I came to see the MSM and bloggers as variations on the same theme. Something else struck as much more important to the future of journalism: namely, that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents were all beginning to bypass journalists and communicate directly with fans using digital tools that let anybody become a publisher. As I see it, those efforts will inevitably lead to teams and other sports entities regarding journalists as competitors, endangering the old, tacit bargain in which newspapers got access and readers and teams got publicity and customers. (You can read the rest of my argument here.)

The reactions were interesting — one objection I heard from multiple folks was that teams and other entities aren’t capable of reporting impartially on their own doings, and therefore sports fans won’t trust information from them.

The first part of this is undoubtedly true (as it is for any organization); it’s the second part that concerns me.

I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument. I don’t want to get my concussion news from the Saints, my NBA lockout updates from the Knicks and my Madoff analysis from the Mets. But I’m not so confident that I’m representative of all readers, or that most sports fans welcome the press serving as watchdogs. And I think even the best-case scenario in which teams are publishers and competitors will be a challenge for journalists.

First, the readership question. We should admit that a lot of information generated by sports doesn’t particularly need interpretation by journalists. Lineups, injury reports, signings, and results are relatively straightforward affairs; given the ability to see highlights whenever we want, the game story has largely outlived its usefulness in professional sports, particularly since today’s athletes are trained to offer little beyond carefully bland clichés. Teams also now have plenty of indie bloggers following them, who offer plenty of fan reaction, historical context, statistical analysis and other perspectives without the need to set foot in a locker room. That’s a lot of information for sports fans right there, without having discussed traditional journalism at all.

Sports, of course, is bigger than just game results and team news — really understanding what’s going on with your favorite team demands some awareness of economics, labor relations, health issues, drug testing and more. But now we’ve moved beyond more casual fans to a smaller audience. And every time sports reporting moves beyond the basics of the games and the sport to controversial subjects, you get objections from some fans that a certain issue isn’t sports, or ruins sports, strays into athlete’s private lives, etc. I don’t think that’s true of reporting on government or civic institutions, or at least it isn’t true nearly as often. As journalists, we see ourselves as watchdogs protecting the public interest, but plenty of readers see us as institutions with our own agendas. What we think of as a necessary mission may strike plenty of readers as special pleading.

So what will happen as teams explore the possibilities of being publishers in their own right? You’ll see a lot of experimentation — they won’t all take the same approach. But there will be a basic scenario underpinning those experiments: Teams will be competing with journalists for clicks, and will have unbeatable access to information. That’s a pretty good hand to be dealt, and they’ll certainly do something with it.

The good news? One best-case scenario for journalists would actually be a very positive development. Teams may continue to accept that the publicity they get from news accounts is worth the annoyance of reporters’ disruptive questions and occasional bad press — they’ll be more aggressive about being publishers in their own right, but also welcome whatever audience they can get from newspapers, TV and the web. Realizing they can’t compete with teams for a lot of basic information, traditional journalists will stop reporting minutiae, writing traditional game stories and churning out commodity stuff. Instead, they’ll focus their efforts on more interesting fare, forcing an evolution of sports journalism that should be good for publishers and fans alike.

There are other possibilities, though. I can see team coverage being handled at the league level, which would give leagues control, standardize coverage and account for teams that don’t want to cover themselves or would stink at it. (Every league has teams that are smart and progressive about digital possibilities and teams that are Neanderthals about them.) We’re not that far from this scenario: Leagues already saddle news organizations with restrictions on the use of highlights and other information they produce. And consider that MLB.com, for one, has a big roster of team reporters who do a pretty solid job providing relatively unvarnished accounts of team news. What if these league reporters were given preferential access to clubhouses? Or sole access?

Then there’s the worst-case scenario, in which teams shut out traditional reporters as competitors who aren’t worth the problems they bring. Some fans are upset, but most relatively casual fans still have lots of red meat. Relatively straightforward news comes from the teams, color comes from the athletes themselves, and lots of indie bloggers generate information from any number of perspectives. In-depth stories about labor, stadium funding, college scandals, injury patterns and other issues become harder to write and appear more rarely. So too do good features that give us better senses of individual players and teams.

I hope we’re headed for that first scenario. But even if it comes to pass, sports journalists are due for some wrenching cultural changes. And I can’t rule out the other scenarios.

* * *

I’ve collected 19 of my best Indiana columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from Amazon, BN.com, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!

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Business Insider Tries to Tame Commenting

Posted in Branding, Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on July 7, 2011

I really like the comment moderation system used by Business Insider, for a number of reasons.

The skinny, as explained here: For about a year Business Insider has had a section of comments called the Bleachers, a dumping ground for comments that the editors find, to use Henry Blodget’s rather amusing formulation, “offensive, dumb, hateful, annoying, or otherwise value-less.” That’s been joined by the Bleachers’ opposite, the Board Room, a home for particularly good comments promoted by the editors. Comments worthy of neither the Board Room nor the Bleachers go in the Water Cooler.

Now, Business Insider has introduced something called the Penalty Box, which works like this: If you make a comment that gets booted to the Bleachers, you get a strike by your name. Each strike lasts a month. Accumulate three strikes and you get 24 hours in the Penalty Box, with every comment you make automatically landing in the Bleachers — unless you write something worthy of the Board Room, in which case your strikes are erased.

Is it a perfect system? No — not that it claims to be, or should be treated like it’s finished. I think 24 hours seems like too short of a time out to curb obnoxious behavior, and such a system would scale a lot better if other commenters could help police things, such as by being able to vote comments into the Bleachers and/or the Board Room. Blodget addresses the latter point in a comment of his own, noting that “the problem with leaving everything to the voting is that too often it is used as a ‘like’ system. If a reader agrees with a comment, it gets a thumbs up, and if the reader disagrees, it gets a thumbs down. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t separate valuable from value-less.”

But my objections are minor; there’s a lot to like here. I particularly like that Business Insider’s system feels loose and fun and has an identity. The whimsical names add some levity to the proceedings without eroding the purpose of the exercise, the Viking illustrations are entertaining, and the system feels like you’d want to spend time with it, which is the first step to creating habit. And perhaps most of all it’s theirs — you’re not going to mistake the Bleachers with its tomato-wielding Viking for a grayed-out comment on some other site, or get confused between the Board Room and the New York Times’s top comments.

Taming the fire-and-forget problems of web comments is an important task, and a tough job. But there’s no reason to be deadly serious about it from pillar to post. Business Insider has made it fun, and made it work for their brand and their identity. It’s an approach worth emulating.

* * *

I know posts have been scarce around here, for which I apologize — my lame excuse is that other writing projects that have sucked up a lot of my time, plus general exhaustion. That said, I’ve written a couple of columns for my Indiana University digital-sportswriting gig about Grantland, the new ESPN-backed sports-and-pop-culture site run by Bill Simmons, that touch on matters near and dear to RTN’s heart.

In the first, I decried that we insist on reviewing new magazines, columns and websites as if they sprang fully formed from their creators’ heads, with no need to find their footing. Every column, blog or site I’ve ever been a part of has needed a while to find ideal subjects, the right voice and the best way to connect with readers, and Grantland deserves that time just like everything else does. That said, I reviewed the site’s first three days of posts and concluded that by any reasonable measure Grantland was already a success.

In the second, I returned to a theme that I always find interesting: how to create digital brands in an era of brand fragmentation. Grantland isn’t a publication you pick up on a newsstand, choosing it over others, but something you’ll likely read in bits and pieces alongside bits and pieces of other publications, with daily habit, searches and peer recommendations determining which bits and pieces wind up in your particular filter. This is how we read now, and it makes building brands much harder than it used to be. Given that Grantland is already a loose collection of different subjects and well-known writers, it will be very interesting to see how the site does as a brand.

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Where Papers’ Linking Problems Begin

Posted in Cultural Change, Hyperlinks by reinventingthenewsroom on May 20, 2011

Why aren’t news organizations better about linking? That question reverberates in digital-journalism circles periodically, and since the link is one of the more fundamental tenets of the web, if not the fundamental tenet, a failure to link is often portrayed as a symptom of an anti-digital culture.

Here, for instance, is Doc Searls on the topic: “Even now, in 2011, [mainstream media are] still trying to shove the Web’s genie back in the old ink bottle. They do it with paywalls, with schemes to drag your eyes past pages and pages of advertising, and (perhaps worst of all) by leaving out hyperlinks. Never mind that the hyperlink is a perfect way to practice one of journalism’s prime responsibilities: citing sources. … Maybe they take too seriously ‘s “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” thesis (#7) in , and want to stay on (or crawl to the) top of whatever heaps they occupy.”

(Normally I would have dropped those links as extraneous, but that doesn’t seem like a good idea for this post.)

There’s some very interesting commentary on Searls’ post, with the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer noting that his paper’s “workflows and CMSs are print-centric” — and others noting other CMS troubles with linking. That kicked off the latest round in this long-running discussion, a Twitter exchange featuring (among others) Mathew Ingram, C.W. Anderson, Jacob Harris and Patrick LaForge, the last two from the New York Times. The Twitter back-and-forth was captured by Ingram (and Politico’s Alex Byers) using Storify — see it here.

Ingram is tired of the workflow argument, contending on Twitter that “the fact this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” Harris, for his part, tried to defend the Times, asking (at various points) if most readers care about links, and noting that “we aim to inform, but why does it matter when we link if Google is there and offers more choice to the reader?” (To be fair, Harris stated upfront that he was playing devil’s advocate.)

The last piece to consider is this discussion of workflow at Strange Attractor. Kevin Anderson, a veteran of the Guardian, notes the problems the Guardian endured going from Movable Type to a less-friendly content-management system, and a larger issue it faced: “There was an internal conflict over whether to use the web tools or the print tools to create content, and in the end, the print tools won out. The politics of print versus the web played out even in the tools we used to create content. That was an even more jarring move. It was like trying to create a web story with movable type, and I’m not talking about the blogging platform. Most newspaper CMSes are more WordPerfect from the 1980s than WordPress.”

This hearkens back to something Boyer said in commenting on Searls’s post, which Anderson also quoted: “In our newsroom, a reporter writes in Microsoft Word that’s got some fancy hooks to a publishing workflow. It goes to an editor, then copy, etc., and finally to the pagination system for flowing into the paper. Only after that process is complete does a web producer see the content. They’ve got so many things to wrangle that it would be unfair to expect the producer to read and grok each and every story published to the web to add links. When I got here a couple years ago, a fresh-faced web native, I assumed many of the similar ideas proposed above. ‘Why don’t they link?? It’s so *easy* to link!’ I’m not saying this isn’t broken. It is terribly broken, but it’s the way things are. Until newspapers adopt web-first systems, we’re stuck.”

Bingo — except the solution depends on what you mean when you say “systems.”

I spent more than 12 years as a columnist, editor and cat-herder at The Wall Street Journal Online, during which time I was the editorial guy on numerous enhancements to our editing-and-publishing tools, culminating in a project to replace those tools entirely. We opted to replace our systems with editing-and-publishing tools from EidosMedia, where I worked after the Journal and I parted ways — and where I got to see a number of other newsrooms’ workflows. (Disclosure: I’m still an EidosMedia consultant, and they sponsor this blog.)

Having seen this issue from a couple of different perspectives, I think at this point it’s much more a people problem than it is a systems problem. I keep thinking back to a conversation I had with a reporter for the print Journal, when I was still there and we were pondering how to replace our editing-and-publishing tools, and how that would change our workflows and newsroom hierarchy.

We were down in the nitty-gritty, discussing the various content fields we’d ask reporters to enter when they filed stories. The print reporter was adamant that those should be stripped to the minimum — the text of the story, essentially. I was advocating (equally adamantly) that everything at least be available for reporters to enter, from headlines and summaries to links and supporting documents.

I noted that as a columnist for the web arm of the Journal, I wrote my own headlines, summaries and did all my own links — and frankly, I was goddamned if I was going to let somebody else touch that stuff. It was my work, bearing my name, and I would be the one judged on the results — not some copy editor or web producer whose name wasn’t on the story.

The print reporter looked at me like I was from Mars — which, essentially, I was.

That exchange went to the heart of a big question for our team. I advocated that the reporters not only be brought into the system, but also be forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to work within it, with as many of the story responsibilities as possible pushed “upstream” to them. That was the way we worked on the web, and the advantages of it seemed self-evident to me. Headlines and summaries would be more accurate. Interesting links or extra material was much less likely to get discarded as stories crossed from the print to the web side of the house, missed opportunities I was tired of bemoaning. Downstream, web workflows would be smarter and more humane — our night folks had a crushing workload, and were too busy putting out fires and fixing problems to read stories carefully and craft packages of links. And so on.

But this view wasn’t shared everywhere. Attitude-wise, the reporters didn’t fit into one box — some were enthusiastic webheads and agents for change, while others were digital refuseniks. Like the reporter I’d argued with, they wanted the complexity and perceived duties of the web kept as far away as possible. Sometimes this was because they were already extraordinarily busy with the difficult, demanding business of reporting and writing; other times it was because the digital world was intimidating. And they were supported — to my surprise — by some print editors and bureau chiefs, who didn’t want reporters bird-dogging their stories through the workflow. Plus there were union issues, and technology questions with reporters in the field, and a host of other reasons that supported the status quo. That was Word and email, which I objected vociferously would continue to support a text-only workflow that pushed linking and everything else downstream, to people who were too busy or removed from the story creation to do it effectively.

I suspect a lot of newsrooms have had similar debates — and the reasons are more mundane corporate or human stuff than part of some revanchist, anti-web strategy.

If I were running a newsroom and had a decent technology budget, I’d get my reporters and editors a good system, then tell them they were all working in it — and those who objected to that were welcome to explore the excellent opportunities available in corporate communications. Never waste a good crisis, as the saying goes — and that’s certainly what news organizations have. But the point is that improving systems isn’t enough. The biggest problem in most newsrooms I’ve seen is that Person X doesn’t talk to Person Y — because he can’t physically, or never has, or doesn’t want to, or has been discouraged from doing so. The killer app for those newsrooms isn’t something they can get from a vendor — it’s a better seating chart.

So it is with linking woes — in many cases, I suspect, these are people problems.

Sizing Up the New York Times’ Paid-Access Plan

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2011

This is an expansion and rewrite of thoughts first shared at the invitation of Nieman Journalism Lab, as presented here:

First up, thoughts on the Times’ actual plan.

We should all remember that this is the beginning of the Times’ strategy, not its finished form. The Financial Times is the paper that’s had the most success with the so-called metered model, and they’ve tweaked that model six ways to Sunday since introducing it. The Times will do the same. One of the basic principles of digital anything, from storytelling to design, is that it’s iterative — you experiment and learn and refine. Any sane paid-access plans will be iterative too — yet the Times’ first attempt was treated as if it had been handed down from Mount Sulzberger carved in stone.

So where would I iterate? Having a different cost scale based on device strikes me as a short-term approach that flies in the face of where our changing digital habits will lead us — the idea that people will pay extra for different experiences as delivered by different devices is worth exploring, but asking them to pay extra for the same information displayed in a different form factor won’t work in the long run, and maybe even not the medium one. On the flip side, I think free access for all home-delivery subscribers is too timid — I’d gladly pay for the Times in digital form, but I won’t have to because I have Saturday/Sunday home delivery. By ignoring bundles of print twice a week, I actually save money on what I’d pay for full digital access. (Though see Nieman’s Joshua Benton on why this might make more sense than I think.)

One thing I wouldn’t worry about — at all — is that the paid-access restrictions can be evaded. This is seemingly always raised by digital-media pundits, which is somewhat understandable: A lot of us are comfortable with technology and like playing with it. But because that’s true of us and a lot of folks we talk shop with, we overestimate how true it is of everybody else.

Here’s Cory Doctorow, for instance: “lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times’s site has no way to know how many pages you’ve seen this month”. Alternately, he imagines that someone will create “a browser redirection service that pipes links to nytimes.com through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren’t blocked by the paywall; or write a browser extension that sets ‘referer=twitter.com/$VALID_TWEET_GUID’, or some other clever measure that has probably already been posted to the comments below”. The Times, Doctorow predicts, will then “build all kinds of countermeasures to detect and thwart cookie-blocking, referer spoofing, and suchlike.”

If the Times’ leaders are smart, they’ll do no such thing, because there’s a huge audience of people out there who would laugh out loud at anything that posits turning off cookies as the easiest bit of technological trickery, even without that blithe “of course.” There are always going to be technologically adept folks who like getting around barriers, and less-adept folks who have more time than money. The effort required to thwart them isn’t worth it, particularly since it makes it more likely that you’ll accidentally shut out law-abiding people. It makes far more sense to focus on folks who either don’t know how to play techno-ninja or don’t consider it worth the effort, because they’re willing to pay a reasonable price for an experience that isn’t a pain in the ass.

Other industries prove the point. If I hear a song I like and want a digital download of it, I can get one for free with a little work. I can search for it on a music blog that has downloadable MP3s that haven’t expired. I can find a torrent of it. I can stream it and capture the audio. I can do a lot of things. If your starting point in assessing a plan is whether its technological safeguards can be evaded, you’d assume the digital-music industry couldn’t exist. In fact, it’s worth $5 billion a year.  (I know what you’re about to say. Hold that thought for a moment.)

Closer to home, remember the 2009 episode of “The Office” in which the Dunder Mifflin staff wants to read a Wall Street Journal article but are flummoxed by the paywall? After asking “Are you serious?” Jim gets through to the article, probably using the old trick of searching for the article title in Google and accessing it through Google News. (See it here — the relevant scene begins around the 2:30 mark.) Paid-access critics had a field day, with one noting that “you know your sneaky little trick of getting around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall is mainstream if they demonstrate it” on an NBC prime-time show. But this misses something pretty basic: Two people at Dunder Mifflin knew the trick, but 10 didn’t. Smart publishers don’t have to worry about leaky paywalls, because Jim Halperts are — despite what they themselves think — relatively rare.

I think there are two much bigger problems faced by news organizations contemplating paid access: unfortunate vocabulary and outsized expectations.

First up, the industry ought to hold a contest to find a term to replace “paywall,” because it’s a self-defeating word for what organizations are trying to do. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but a NYT reader’s comment on the announcement brought it home: “I am sorry to say that I will no longer be able to read the NYTimes online.” But she will! She can read 20 articles per month, and if she maxes that out she can read five a day through Google, or as many as she wants through Facebook, Twitter, or blogs. That’s quite a lot for free. What the “metered model” (a terrible term in its own right) really does is define who a publication’s most-loyal readers are and try to convert them to paid supporters. It’s more like a narrowcasted pledge drive than a paywall. If paid access were framed in those terms, I think there’d be fewer misapprehensions like the commenter’s and more support among loyalists.

But this gets us to my second point, about expectations. By their nature, paid-access approaches like this one are likely to yield relatively small returns. Even if they’re very successful in converting loyalists, they’re fishing in an awfully small pond — one that’s wisely chosen but far too small to sustain newsgathering operations of the size and scope seen in print’s heyday. (And this gets back to the music industry: $5 billion is pretty good, but the industry used to be a whole lot larger.) The traditional newspaper industry is going to get a lot smaller even if approaches such as the Times’ model work. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not — you can’t run an industry still sized for analog dollars on digital dimes. To pretend otherwise ensures that all paid-access approaches will be judged against something they can’t compete with, and seen as failures.

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