Last week I was at the Poynter Institute, discussing life as a sports blogger with a group of students and established journalists, and someone asked how beat writers could use sports blogs to help their coverage.
I think what I said applies not just to sports blogs (I talked about the small but surprisingly diverse world of New York Mets blogs, since that’s what I know best), but to any newspaper blog. My advice boiled down to this: Successful blogs are conversations, ones that reporters should at least listen to and ideally join, whether they’re traditional reporters or newspaper bloggers.
First off, I said, reporters should remind themselves that good blogs are communities of people who are passionate devotees about a given subject, and the fact that these communities are virtual rather than physical no longer particularly matters. Those online communities are the equivalent of a lively potluck dinner or the corner bar where everybody bends elbows, the kind of gathering that a reporter would give his eyeteeth to be invited to, and where he’d fill his notebook. And with blogs, you don’t even need an invitation to listen in.
Sportswriters who listen to those conversations can steal a step on their competitors, because they’ll get the tenor of a community in ways they won’t dealing with a team or taking the measure of a crowd from the vantage point of the press box, and because they can vet potential sources. There are limits to this, of course: To go back to baseball, you wouldn’t write that Jake Peavy is coming to the Mets because letsgomets86 said so in a misspelled comment written entirely in caps and attributed to his brother’s friend’s buddy. But that conversation can be invaluable for other kinds of stories.
The Mets just opened Citi Field, their new ballpark, and anyone hanging around the comments section of Faith and Fear in Flushing would have seen a while ago that while fans generally liked the new park, the Mets had two problems that weren’t going to go away: complaints about seats from which you can’t see a good chunk of the outfield and the perception that there wasn’t enough Mets history inside the park. The various Mets beat writers did write about both those issues, but from the pitch of the conversation on our blog, I could tell that dissatisfaction ran deeper and would prove longer-lasting than some of those early stories suggested. Furthermore, a beat writer hanging around our comments area would have found the kind of sources you work a crowd hoping you’ll find but fearing you won’t: lifelong Met fans who are passionate but not irrational and can express themselves.
And those are just the benefits of listening. Beat writers who actually join the conversation will be at minimum respected and quite likely embraced. It’s no secret that the anonymity of the Internet encourages people to say vile things they wouldn’t dare say if they had to look someone in the eye. But I’ve found that there’s a more-hopeful corollary to this: When people actually engage with their critics, the tone of the conversation quickly changes, and the cheap-shot artists get shoved to the fringe. Moreover, however much some independent bloggers like to jeer at the “MSM,” most of them are thrilled to get a little recognition (and traffic) from MSM sources. Engagement works. Whether you’re linking out to good bloggers who’ve written something interesting, politely setting the record straight on something, or wading into the comments section of good blogs, it helps defang the nastiest critics and can turn the reasonable ones into champions.
In recent years newspapers have started thousands upon thousands of blogs. Some of them are great, but most of them are pretty pallid. And one reason is that reporters’ first instinct is hold themselves aloof from the conversation that ebbs and flows between blogs devoted to the same subject. They don’t link out or join in.
That’s the old model of newspapers, except with slightly different pronouncements handed down from a slightly lower mountaintop. And its time has passed. It no longer works for us to hand out missives from on high. Now, technology has let readers come up the mountain and set up their own printing plants on the slopes. They gossip and gab down there, often arguing about whatever dispatch we send to them, but increasingly mixing it up about each other’s pronouncements.
This can strike us as unfair, untidy and unseemly, particularly when we send something down the mountain and see it received with jeers and spittle. But tough luck — our chatty mountaineers aren’t going to relocate. The only thing for us to do is go down the mountain to meet them.
New posts may be sparse this week — I’m heading down to Florida for a Poynter Institute sports summit, in which I’ll talk blogging for seasoned pros and newcomers, but mostly listen and learn. I was lucky enough to grow up around Poynter’s halls, and they always put on a good show that leaves you eager to try out new things. Having been tapped as the Blog Guy, I’ll be very interested in the reactions: The last Poynter sports summit I attended had a couple of veterans who were actively hostile and dismissive about blogs in the usual boring, uninformed Get Off My Lawn way, as well as some students whom I quickly learned had a lot to teach me about being entrepreneurial and making blogs work. I’ll also be curious to see if the sportswriters are ahead of the journalistic curve in pondering new storytelling forms and ideas for beats, keeping in mind Steven Berlin Johnson’s observation that sports is more of an “old-growth forest” in terms of Web coverage and competition than other parts of the news. Anyway, I’ll try to do some posts from Poynter as events allow.
On other fronts, editorsweblog discusses the Associated Press’s latest moves and goals with Jim Kennedy, AP’s director of strategic planning. Jim and I were colleagues together at the WSJ.com, so it pains me how much I disagree with what he has to say here. He fleshes out what AP means by landing pages, which at least sounds better than suggested by the initial reports I reacted to somewhat savagely here. But the fact that these pages will be largely automated sets off all kinds of alarm bells for me — automated topic pages are generally the box canyons of newspaper search, eroding reader loyalty by dead-ending them somewhere that’s not particularly useful. (To see how to do topic pages right, check out the New York Times — but think about the amount of work behind it. Now, if the AP wanted to go in the direction of creating truly curated, honest-to-goodness news guides around subjects of import, I’d be much more interested.) And Jim’s response to criticism about the AP selling content to portals seems beside the larger point that’s only beginning to be examined — instead of talking about Reuters and AP Web revenue, I’d like to hear him answer Dave Krieger’s question about why the aggregation arm of the AP should still exist.
Besides, the overall idea is still based on the premise that Google News isn’t doing its job very well, which certainly isn’t true for me. Witness the Google News Timeline, which I can’t wait to play with — and desperately wish (as do others) that I’d seen invented by a newspaper.
I’ve been writing Reinventing the Newsroom for about six weeks now, and I keep running into a vocabulary problem: What should I call an organization that reports on news, creates stories and puts those stories out via a variety of media channels?
Newspaper? The obvious answer, and there’s a long tradition of print terms being reused for the Web — for example, I came up as a rim editor and became a slot editor even though we never sat in such a configuration or passed physical copy back and forth. But I’m not happy with that answer — reflexive thinking about the “paper” part is a big reason so many of these organizations are scrambling to catch up with the digital world.
Web newspaper? Seems like it ignores the paper part, which is kicking the pendulum too far the other way.
Web-first newspaper? Too insidery, and a bear to type.
E-paper? Means something else. Horrid term anyway.
News organization? Bloodless and drab. Sounds like a wire service, or a TV station with pretensions.
Newsroom? Refers to the actual shop where the work gets done, not to the product put into the hands and ears and in front of the eyeballs of readers.
A Friday Read: I think Joe Posnanski is the best sportswriter in the business, and he deserves that praise for both his newspaper work and his blogging efforts. He’s got a new thing going — The Future of Newspapers, in which he’s a ringmaster for thoughts on a subject obviously dear to my heart.
Last week Joe put the spotlight on Dave Krieger, another fine sportswriter who moved to the Denver Post after the demise of the Rocky Mountain News. Krieger reviews the Rocky’s last days before moving on to the Sturm and Drang about Google and the Associated Press. About which he has a question:
Why should any newspaper in the internet age be a member of an organization that takes that paper’s original material, rewrites it and distributes it around the world without attribution or compensation? In fact, an organization that charges the newspaper for the privilege? Inasmuch as the AP is a creation of the newspaper industry, is it not accurate to say we are complicit in the theft of our own material? Aren’t newspapers the agents of their own destruction every day?
Good question. The arm of the AP that produces original content is one thing, but what’s the use of the aggregator arm in this day and age? Papers — ugh, there’s that vocabulary problem again — are slowly but surely coming to the realization that they can and should link to other papers and sites for news that isn’t part of their core mission. Why do they need a middleman to do that for them, let alone an expensive one?
The argument over how or whether the newspaper industry ought to approach Google is continuing, with the two camps (which can be dubbed, with only mild oversimplification, Google Is a Thieving Parasite and Google Is the Lifeblood of New Journalism) digging in and anyone trying to stake out middle ground ducking pot shots.
First, the new stuff.
On Rough Type, Nicholas Carr looks at Google as middleman, arguing that while Google absolutely brings traffic to newspaper sites, “when a middleman controls a market, the supplier has no real choice but to work with the middleman — even if the middleman makes it impossible for the supplier to make money.” (The italics are his.) Yes, newspaper sites can opt out of Google by invoking robots.txt — but it would be suicidal for them to do so. Linking to an argument by Tom Slee, Carr paints Google as the Wal-Mart of links — everything is voluntary, but it’s Google’s way or the highway. (Carr notes that he isn’t criticizing Google — the company is just acting in its own self-interest.)
On Content Bridges, Ken Doctor also portrays Google as an inescapable middleman, and follows up on his post from last week seeking a new deal between newspapers and Google — an idea that got me thinking that one way to approach Google is to argue that its mission statement supports the idea of newspapers as a public good that ought to be supported. (Yes, that’s an appeal to philanthropy — but Google does have a philanthropic arm it’s very proud of. And isn’t it a better starting point for a conversation than calling Google names?)
Steve Outing, finally, suggests turning the Google-and-newspapers picture upside down, with newspapers cooperating with Google to fully monetize Google News by turning the “ad spigot” completely on and sharing revenue. It’s an interesting idea — don’t miss the give and take in the comments.
This has been a long-running drama in the newspaper industry, one that took a dramatic turn last week, when the Associated Press began muttering darkly and vaguely that it was going to do … something vis-a-vis its relationship with aggregators such as Google. (Witness Dean Singleton, whose chosen metaphor I found distressingly off the mark.)
Saber-rattling aside, what’s the AP going to do? For one thing, they’re going to build their own “search-friendly landing page” for AP members’ content. (David Carr discusses this and reviews the whole brouhaha in today’s New York Times.)
Really? That’s the answer? For Google News, substitute a … portal?
This is yet more distressing evidence that the asteroid that’s hit the newspaper industry is ushering in a dreadful reverse Cretaceous: The Web mammals are dying (murder weapon: pink slips) and leaving shivering dinosaurs who are trying to survive by coming up with ideas that the Web mammals sorted through and applied or discarded more than a decade ago.
Remember Pathfinder? It was Time Warner’s 1994 umbrella site for its various print titles, and Pathfinderitis should be shorthand for an unfortunate affliction of brand myopia that still causes big companies to walk smack into the lamp posts and brick walls of the Web world. Pathfinder was a great idea provided you knew that a given title was published by Time Warner. That passed muster with Time Warner executives, since this was the way they dealt with the world every day. And when you don’t get out of your own building enough, it’s easy to think that consumers see the world that way too.
The problem, of course, is that they don’t. Consumers don’t have the faintest idea what conglomerate produced their favorite magazine, published the book they’ve been reading, distributed a band’s MP3s, produced a TV series or bankrolled a movie. The brands that matter are the magazine, the author or title, the band, the name of the show, and the name of the movie. Even a quick conversation with most any consumer could prove this, yet various rights holders spent unfathomable amounts of money in the early years of the Web imagining consumers thought otherwise, or could be taught to do so. (Witness Go, Disney’s dopey attempt at a portal — now reduced to pointless additional letters in Web addresses such as ESPN’s. Or the various stillborn attempts by record labels to set up their own digital-music sites.)
The AP has now developed what sure looks like an acute case of Pathfinderitis. The AP is a business brand, not a consumer one — if news consumers are aware of it at all, it’s probably as a behind-the-scenes entity that bulks up regional papers with news from elsewhere. (And that’s something regional papers are increasingly realizing isn’t worth their time or money now that they can just link to the likes of the New York Times.) Trying to transform the AP from a business brand into a consumer brand is folly. Trying to do it by creating a portal in 2009 is folly upon folly. Who does AP think will visit this landing page? What dramatic shift in behavior will cause them to do so?
Now, a caveat. Pathfinder dates back to the Web era when search engines were generally terrible, and umbrella brands made marginally more sense. The dominance of effective search in today’s Web has served as a partial cure for Pathfinderitis — it doesn’t eliminate the affliction, but it does prevent it from being immediately fatal, because consumers can find what they’re looking for without having to make their way to a landing page.
In fact, search’s central role in the Web experience has led to the creation of “bottom-up brands” such as About.com, YouTube, Wikipedia and Hulu. These brands have identities of their own and traditional brand trappings such as landing pages, but many of their users have never visited those landing pages and wouldn’t think to do so. That’s because they encounter bottom-up brands through individual slices — slices which they find via search.
It’s possible to build consumer awareness of bottom-up brands through repeated exposure to these bits and pieces — some of those bottom-up brands are now pretty well-known in their own right. But that’s almost a byproduct of success — the traditional method of brand-building turned upside down. And that success depends on search. Which is to say, on Google.
Could the AP succeed this way, or at least not fail? Maybe. But to do so, it would need for its content to do well in search and be repeatedly found by consumers, who would slowly learn that the underlying AP brand was a winner and possibly begin to seek it out. Is there a mechanism for driving that process in the news business? In fact, there is. Unfortunately for the AP, it’s called Google News.
Oh, by the way — Pathfinder still exists. It lives on here as a forlorn, unlit beacon for a grab bag of Time Warner properties. (Incredibly enough, Coastal Living is “the Web site for people love the coast.”) If you want a sneak preview of the AP landing page come 2019, look no further.
The other day I got an email from an editor for an online publication, one that stuck in my head. Here’s the relevant portion, with some details changed to preserve anonymity:
When I started in journalism more than a decade ago, my job was to find a good story, do the interviews and research, write it well, and get it filed on time — The End. Today, I have to constantly justify my professional existence via a thousand different performance metrics culled from traffic reports (the pulling together of which takes up half of the time I could be spend doing real work), manage a Web site — write, edit, research, crop and upload photos, clean up XML, manage SEO, syndication, repackaging, and do the brunt of any sort of promotion or relationship building with other sites that needs to be done — plus manage a Facebook page, and, ideally, a Twitter feed, to support said site. STOP THE MADNESS.
I suspect this isn’t an atypical job description for the modern editor of a Web site. To me it shows — in rather stark detail — how much the industry has changed, and how much help journalists need to keep up with those changes.
Technological changes are like riptides — you swim along and before you even realize it, you’ve been hauled way down the beach to an unfamiliar place (and may have to paddle like hell to get yourself to shore). Not so long ago it was an ironclad rule that writers and editors didn’t dirty their hands with traffic numbers or other measures of readership. Not so long ago, photos were handled by specialists; syndication and promotion was the exclusive province of business types on some other floor; and SEO, Facebook and Twitter were unknown. Now, those things are run-of-the-mill parts of a modern editor’s job.
The problem is that mill is grinding up editors.
On the one hand, I think newsrooms will be better with many of the walls between editorial folks, designers, photographers and business people torn down. Reporters, editors and writers will tell better stories once they regard pictures, video and other storytelling components as integrated parts of a whole instead of as things that get bolted onto their writing somewhere down the assembly line. Understanding what stories connect with readers and what don’t will make journalists serve those readers better and drag back any scribes who attempt to take up residence in an ivory tower. (My approach to being a columnist changed dramatically after a couple of months singing for my supper as a blogger.) The entrepreneurial lessons of building brands via Facebook and Twitter will drive much-needed innovation in newspapers and prove valuable to journalists in an age of diminished job security.
But it troubles me to think how many editors will get chewed up trying to add all these new duties to everything they already do. With journalism jobs being eliminated left and right, editors like my correspondent complain quietly and reluctantly if at all — but they face a steep learning curve, and the danger that all that time checking traffic and massaging SEO headlines and fueling Facebook outposts will cut into the time needed to craft stories that engage readers while maintaining journalistic standards for fairness and accuracy.
Perhaps this is a temporary state of affairs for digital-age editors — it may ultimately be more advantageous for newsrooms to let specialists handle things like SEO, social media and brand-building. But I think a lot of those expanded responsibilities and heavier workloads will remain.
This isn’t just a problem of newsroom culture and job descriptions — it’s a technological issue, one I think demands that newsrooms look hard at whether their technology is supporting where they’re trying to go and what their people are trying to do.
Technologically speaking, many newsrooms are still a Rube Goldberg machine of awkward handoffs between different systems, code thrown over walls of incompatibility (often with messy landings) and people forced to be human bridges across technological gaps. Feeding the Web, news alerts, email lists, promos, mobile sites, Facebook and Twitter may not be one process but seven, a ceaseless blizzard of copying and pasting and retyping. Editors may pick photos and work with them in another system entirely, and resize photos for multiple Web destinations. Same for video and audio. Material for print may need extensive rework for the Web. And that’s just the core editorial work — now throw in Facebook and Twitter and monitoring traffic and everything else. How many systems is that for editors to work in?
When I was an editor, my left thumb and ring finger would naturally drift to the ALT and TAB keys, because I spent so much time using that keyboard combination to switch between applications. Every ALT-TAB demands that an editor shift mental gears and refocus — and over the course of a day, gears inevitably slip and focus is lost. Mistakes are made, which is bad enough. But good editors are burned out and opportunities are lost, which is worse.
To be sure, technology won’t solve everything — in my old newsroom, I was quasi-notorious among our developers for preferring safeguards based on policy rather than systems, and for advocating that the technological fine print come from smart people doing daily work rather than from guys whiteboarding scenarios in conference rooms. But having the right technology is the foundation for everything else. Reinventing the newsroom is hard enough; doing it without a solid technological foundation is much harder.