On Friday I wrote about the Tallahassee Democrat’s experiment in making its investigative story about Wakulla County’s sheriff a print-only feature, supplemented by online areas where readers could get a summary of the story, discuss it and read supporting documents. (See the original post here.)
So how’d it go? I emailed Bob Gabordi, the Democrat’s executive editor, to find out.
“Traffic was pretty strong and the conversation was very lively,” he told me. “We had just under 9,000 page views on the summary, primarily people going on for the conversation. Much of the focus was on the journalism: Did we go too far into his business, not far enough, even a few ‘just rights.’ “
Those 9,000 page views, Mr. Gabordi says, put the summary in tallahassee.com’s top 15 text pieces for the month in terms of traffic — and in the top five if football stories are excluded.
Meanwhile, on the print side, he says the Democrat saw its biggest Sunday single-copy sales day since the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2008, with a gain of nearly 16% over the previous week.
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At the risk of changing gears rather precipitously, here’s my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center. It notes that access to players and games was once a huge competitive advantage for sportswriters, but regular telecasts and wall-to-wall sports coverage have eroded that advantage. Is access still useful? Yes — but I contend that few sportswriters are using it in ways that would help new media work for them.
On Sunday the Tallahassee Democrat will run a story by Jennifer Portman about Wakulla County Sheriff David Harvey, who’s been in office for more than 30 years. Portman’s story draws on months of investigative work, will run at around 120 inches, and be complemented by a number of documents available on tallahassee.com.
But Portman’s actual story won’t appear on the Web site. It will be print-only.
Bob Gabordi, the Democrat’s executive editor, calls that an experiment, one that came out of brainstorming with editors about how to keep the Sunday paper special.
It also takes traffic numbers into account. “We generate a tremendous amount of traffic for a market our size,” Gabordi says, but adds that traditional Sunday takeout stories like Portman’s “get minimal traffic.”
Gabordi may be in for a buffeting from Web-first circles, but he’s no Luddite: He chatted amiably about reactions he’s received in comments on his blog and via email and Facebook, and about the Democrat’s use of Facebook and Twitter. (Tweets from readers who use the #noles hashtag during Saturday’s FSU-USF game will be posted on the Web site’s front page.) And it’s not like tallahassee.com is ignoring Portman’s story: Besides those online documents, Web readers will get an executive summary and a place to discuss the story.
“We’re trying to take advantage of the strength of each of those mediums,” he says.
Gabordi says he’ll be very focused on how customers — both Web and print — react to the experiment, and will be digging into the numbers for Web traffic and single-copy sales. (Though the Seminoles’ game will make measurements difficult.) So far, he says, one Web reader has complained about being taken for granted, while a number of print readers have thanked the Democrat for rewarding them for paying for the newspaper.
“I didn’t realize it was going to get this much attention,” he says, adding that since long-form stories have had limited success, the risk isn’t that great and the experiment is worth trying.
I asked Gabordi if he was worried about Portman’s story not being able to spread online via links and email, and he called that “a fair question — it’s going to require us to do more thinking on that.” (In a follow-up email, he added that he thinks the Democrat is “a very local organization” both digitally and print in terms of news.) Asked if there were plans to put the story online after its appearance in print, he said “that has been the big question here — I’m not certain about that. If we get some calls or requests for it we’ll certainly do it. But I don’t think we will, quite frankly.”
His prediction isn’t just about the lack of traffic for long-form stories. Rather, it’s that he thinks Web readers have different expectations about what they’re going to get from a story, and will be satisfied by what tallahassee.com will offer.
“I believe that in some ways you’ll be as equipped to talk about that story as a print-only reader,” he says, adding that “I really firmly believe [Web and print] are still separate audiences. There’s some overlap, but they’re mainly separate audiences. We’re just trying to find new ways to satisfy each of those audiences’ demands.”
Because there is apparently no end to my mouthy opinions, I’m now also writing a weekly column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, about sportswriting and new media.
Sportswriting is dear to my heart for a lot of reasons. I grew up devouring it, and it taught me an enormous amount as an impressionable young writer. (Particularly the works of Roger Angell.) When I was at WSJ.com, I was lucky enough to start off seven years’ worth of mornings reading and appreciating sportswriting for The Daily Fix, the Online Journal’s daily roundup. Some of my favorite Journal pieces emerged from getting to moonlight as a sportswriter. (Here’s my fond farewell to Mike Piazza.) And of course there’s Faith and Fear in Flushing, the Mets blog I write with my pal Greg Prince.
Does co-writing Faith and Fear make me a sportswriter? Depends whom you ask — and that’s just one of the interesting, occasionally rowdy conversations going on in sportswriting, with blogs at the center of the debate. What’s more, sportswriting is part of the “old-growth forest” of Web information, to use Steven Berlin Johnson’s term: As with technology and politics, there are lots of well-established sports blogs and sites providing more information to readers and more competition for traditional print sources. Which, of course, leads to lots of uncertainty, sometimes unhappiness, and (perhaps) lessons about what will work and what won’t for digital news.
Anyway, my second column looks at five blog myths that get heard far too often in sportswriting circles, and that make it harder to have a substantive conversation. They’re written in answer to rants by various sportswriters, but I think every one of them is relevant in the larger world of news as well.
Nieman Reports’ latest issue focuses on journalism and social media, and it’s terrific, full of thought-provoking stuff from smart writers and thinkers.
There’s an enormous amount to mull over here, but here are some reactions to two articles that really grabbed me:
Richard Gordon‘s discussion of News Mixer is a great account of a Web-site prototype put together by a Medill class taught by Gordon and Jeremy Gilbert. News Mixer uses Facebook Connect, as I think all newspaper sites soon will, and lets readers annotate paragraphs with questions and answers, offer contextual quips, and post letters to the editor that are given the status of mini-articles. There’s a sense of play with News Mixer that I think is sorely lacking in most comments areas. Yes, readers comment because they have something to say. But they also like to build up profiles, interact with other users (including in relatively passive ways such as following, blocking or “ignoring” them) and do things such as vote comments up or down — all activities that make readers more likely to return to a newspaper’s site, engage and over time become habitual readers.
Gordon also takes himself to task for treating the Web as a one-way broadcasting medium during his time with the Miami Herald:
Our team created discussion boards but hoped they’d require no attention from our staff. We didn’t think that cultivating community or moderating discussions were appropriate or necessary roles for a journalist. And we ignored evidence right in front of us—our own behavior as online users—that the most powerful and persistent driver of Internet usage was the value of connecting with other people.
It’s that last part that brought my palm to my forehead. Because I’ve been guilty of that in my own career — I’d spend days and nights avidly consuming, sharing and commenting on news, then put on my journalist hat and shut that part of my brain off. Ascending Mount Journalism, I’d become an aloof figure who’d hand down stone tablets, making at best half-hearted efforts to connect with readers who were doing the very things I did so enthusiastically … whenever I took my journalist hat off.
We know we have to shed this broadcaster mentality as a business, but that doesn’t mean waiting for the guys in the corner offices to come around to that. It means shedding it as individuals, too. As Gordon notes, the best way to do that is to look at your own behavior as a reader, and figure out how to help and reward that.
(By the way, I looked for Gordon on Twitter and couldn’t find him. Can anybody help?)
This blog has admired Matt Thompson‘s work before, and I really liked his explanation for Nieman of why readers love Wikipedia. Journalists like to crab about Wikipedia mistakes and vandalism, mostly because we feel conflicted about shamelessly cribbing from it. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s defenders tend to get a case of the Webby vapors exalting its DIY nature and distributed expertise. Besides being tedious, both positions miss why Wikipedia works so well for readers. Thompson nails it:
[T]here was also something quite remarkable about how stories are structured on the site, how breaking news gets folded into an elegant, cohesive record, enabling site visitors to quickly catch up on a topic without having to sort through a torrent of disparate articles and headlines.
If you’re looking for a way to combat information overload, to distill the universe of topics covered by the local newspaper into a manageable stream, it’s difficult to find a more perfect invention than the format Wikipedia has pioneered.
Contrast that, he says, with the way newspapers typically approach complex, ongoing stories: They stick the new events at the top, then stick in snippets of background that only serve to confuse readers, making them feel, in Thompson’s words, like understanding the news required “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge like so many cereal box tops I could someday cash in for the prize of basic understanding.”
More tomorrow. In the meantime, get reading!
The latest Pew Research survey of how Americans view the press is out, and offers more evidence that local coverage is the best focus for newspapers trying to transform themselves for the digital age.
When asked where they get most of their national and international news, 71% of survey respondents said television, little changed from recent years. 42% said the Internet, compared with 24% in September 2007. And 33% said newspapers.
When respondents were asked where they get most local news, television still won with 64% of the vote. But 41% said newspapers, compared with just 17% who said the Internet. And among respondents aged 18-29, the numbers were 67% for TV, 39% for newspapers and 21% for the Internet.
There’s the opportunity — if newspapers will take it.
Discussions of how newspapers lost their competitive advantages often focus on the barriers to entry that have fallen. The Web allows anyone who wants to be a publisher to be one — you no longer have to buy presses and lots and lots of former trees. But for years the limits of geography also protected newspapers from competition: Unless you were willing to pay extra for an unsatisfying national edition of some out-of-town paper, your local paper was your default source for most news, from international and national to movie reviews. (This also made the wires invaluable to many papers.)
Now that’s gone: You can read dozens of different papers’ takes on international and national stories and spend the duration of a movie reading its various reviews. With the geographical boundaries down, we have a glut of news in some categories. Within them, competition for readers is national — and increasingly global. Faced with this, digital-first papers should be asking themselves a) if their efforts are good enough to compete nationally; and b) if the expense of a wire service is justified when they could just link to other papers’ efforts.
None of this is a revelation — it underpins Jeff Jarvis’s mantra of “do what you do best and link to the rest,” for instance. But the Pew numbers remind us that it isn’t the rule across all categories of news just yet. When it comes to local news, newspapers still enjoy the protections of geography. And those protections will remain in place — at least when it comes to competing with other newspapers.
But other newspapers aren’t the only source of competition. Neighborhood blogs are springing up everywhere. A bevy of companies are experimenting in an effort to mine the promise of “hyperlocal.”
And the Web itself is changing.
Today’s Web is great for searching globally, but lousy at filtering locally. If I want a flat tire fixed in Brooklyn Heights, it does me no good whatsoever to discover I can get it done really cheaply in Cleveland or that some guy in San Jose is great at it. But this weakness is temporary: Geotagging and location-aware services are driving constant innovations in the local Web, and companies new and old are competing to reap the benefits.
Newspapers’ best chance at transformation is local. As Pew has shown, local is where they still retain readers who otherwise have turned to other sources of news. Local is where the advertising market remains largely untapped. Local is where real-world communities are still searching for a virtual expression. And local is where newspapers still have advantages in institutional knowledge, newsgathering skills and a historically valued place in civic life.
But time is of the essence. Because these advantages won’t last.
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You can read my first column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center here. I’ll be writing weekly about sportswriting and new media, something that’s dear to my heart as former co-writer of WSJ.com’s Daily Fix column and co-author of Faith and Fear in Flushing. I’ll be writing alongside Dave Kindred and Eric Deggans, which is immensely flattering and daunting in equal measures.
In the New York Times, Roger Cohen pens an examination of Twitter and journalism — and he’s being skewered for this bit:
But is [Twitter] journalism? No. In fact journalism in many ways is the antithesis of the “Here Comes Everybody” — Clay Shirky’s good phrase — deluge of raw material that new social media deliver. For journalism is distillation. It is a choice of material, whether in words or image, made in pursuit of presenting the truest and fairest, most vivid and complete representation of a situation.
That strikes me as too black and white, about which more in a bit. But what’s unfortunate is Cohen is getting smacked around (on Twitter, of course) as if he’s Ted Diadun, when in fact I found him well-informed about Twitter and eloquent about the role it’s played in the Iranian elections and the unrest that’s followed.
Twitter is a protean thing that resists easy description, but Cohen does a good job exploring its various facets: “a formidable alerting system for a breaking story; a means of organization; a monitor of global interest levels (Iran trended highest for weeks until Michael Jackson’s death) and of media performance; a bank of essential links; a rich archive; and a community”. And his opening anecdote (from Iranian-American scholar Mahasti Afshar) is a marvelous summary of the social-media revolution and its effect on news.
Does Cohen go a bit too far in trying to define what is (and therefore also what isn’t) journalism? Yes, I think he does. Seeking a more-nuanced take, I found this summation of a paper being delivered today by Alfred Hermida. Hermida refers to Twitter as a “para-journalism form,” and suggests the rise of it and similar forms are supporting what he calls ambient journalism — an awareness of current news and events that readers distill from micro-blogged fragments. (I suspect this owes something to the idea of ambient intimacy that users of Facebook and other social-media services derive from the constant flow of friends’ status updates.)
That’s interesting — but at least from an abstract (and that’s a big caveat), it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from what Cohen is saying. (Slightly sheepish addendum: Seems I described Twitter as ambient news myself back in July.)
Twitter is a wonderful tool for a number of different purposes. I now turn to it first for breaking news, because I find it faster than any online news source and reliable as an aggregator. At EidosMedia we’ve integrated Twitter with our editing-and-publishing system to make it even quicker as a tool for disseminating stories. And if I found myself back in a newsroom, my first order of business would be to craft a Twitter persona as effective and entertaining as the Chicago Tribune’s Colonel Tribune. Whether you call it journalism or para-journalism or not-journalism, Twitter is an effective and important tool that needs to be in the kit of every journalist and news organization. (If you’d like to follow me, I’d be honored.)
But Cohen’s right that it’s not a substitute for a trained view on the ground — you wouldn’t want to replace a piece like Atul Gawande’s investigation into the roots of our health-care woes with tweets. I don’t think Cohen is right that journalism “comes into being only through an organizing intelligence, an organizing sensibility,” but I wholeheartedly agree that journalism serves readers better when that organizing intelligence exists and is put to good use. (Twitter searches during the Iran elections were valuable; Nico Pitney’s aggregation was more so.) And I found Cohen’s rather lyrical defense of presence and choices an excellent rallying cry against the bland, dully even-handed commodity reportage that’s contributed to our industry’s woes.
Twitter is remarkable, and I’ve become one of its evangelists — at first to my surprise, now to my delight. But I don’t think the distance between Twitter’s other champions and Cohen is really as wide as initial reactions may suggest.
(While we’re on the subject, my colleague David Baker and I discuss Twitter, social media and the effect on news organizations in EidosMedia’s latest Web chat, available here.)
The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, isn’t one to pull punches, as his thorough hiding of TV critic Alessandra Stanley made more than plain earlier this summer. Over the weekend, he took up the case of tech columnist David Pogue, whom he introduces as “a high-energy, one-man multimedia conglomerate.” (For the record, I’m a fan of Pogue’s.)
Pogue writes a weekly column, blog entries, an email newsletter and produces videos for the Times. He also makes regular TV and radio appearances, gives lectures and is a featured attraction on geek-focused Caribbean cruises. And he writes help books about tech products — often the same products he reviews in the Times. For instance, Pogue recently reviewed Snow Leopard, the new Mac operating system, and has written two “Missing Manuals” for the OS. (Pogue was already writing tech-help books when the Times hired him in 2000.)
Hoyt asked three journalism ethicists if that was a conflict of interest, and they all said it was. But they didn’t agree about how to solve it. Meanwhile, Hoyt polled people inside the building about activities such as Pogue’s (numerous other Times writers make a great deal of money from other interests) and reports — in a typically dry turn of phrase — that “with what seems a mixture of resignation and sensed opportunity, editors say The Times can be enhanced by all the outside activity.”
This isn’t just a dilemma for the New York Times: As David Pogue goes, so will many a journalist who wants to be able to keep paying the bills.
Nobody likes to say it, but lots of papers’ best writers have been “one-man multimedia conglomerates” for years — and like stars everywhere, they got to blur rules and trample guidelines. Back then, though, less-established writers had few outlets for outside work — the rules applied mainly because they were enforced by technological limitations.
Now, things are different: Writers can blog, record podcasts, shoot video on their own — and promote all this through their own efforts. This has spurred the rise of more and more independent contractors like Pogue, for whom a newspaper gig is just one of many writing outlets and ways of making a living. It’s led junior writers to regard the old rules with a mixture of bafflement and disdain: Why spend years covering City Council meetings or high-school sports when you can have your own blog about politics or pro football up and running in minutes?
And to this volatile mix, one more incendiary has been added: the precarious health of newspapers.
Early in my career, I got to tag along at a working lunch with my managing editor and an old friend of his who was starting up a new journalistic venture. They were going over the qualifications one would want from job candidates when my editor’s friend shook his head, smiling. What was more important, he said, was finding “people who are on fire for the Lord.”
I loved that line, and it served me well when my tasks came to include assessing job candidates. But I fear it now describes a bygone era — in ours, even the most-devout worshipper may find the church empty and its doors shut. I hate to say it, but it’s no longer realistic to expect new journalists to give everything they have to their newspaper, or to subordinate themselves to the paper and its brand. The compact that once applied has been broken by buyouts and layoffs and papers eliminating all positions and inviting former employees to reapply for new positions that pay much less, and by the technological and business uncertainty of where newspapers are heading and if they can get there. A wise journalist now hedges his or her bets, takes care of his or her own brand, and isn’t inclined to wait patiently for opportunities that may never arrive.
I’ve written before about the possibility of a new compact: one in which journalists are “micro-brands” within the paper, tackling the expanded duties of chatting and shooting video and beatblogging (and thus creating new contexts for attracting and keeping readers) in return for a higher public profile and some portable brand equity. But that’s just half of it: Papers also have to face the reality that not only established but also new writers will want to pursue outside opportunities, whether their goal is to make more money, build their brands or just scratch a creative itch.
Would that have been anathema not so long ago? Sure. But given newspapers’ current situation, not allowing writers such chances will just accelerate their exodus from the industry — or stop them from working for newspapers in the first place.
I think the Times responded to Hoyt’s questions the right way, by improving the disclosures Pogue makes to readers about his outside activities, code of ethics and books he’s writing. This is welcome, but not hugely surprising: The Times’s policy on outside activities is already both progressive and wise, in my opinion.
But what all papers need to realize is how many Pogues they will soon have within their ranks. Forbidding young writers from outside activities will no longer work. Instead, papers have to give them guidance that allows them the freedom they’ll demand, while making sure that freedom neither detracts from the paper’s needs nor hurts its name.