Apologies. This will be gone soon.
Syracuse.com’s Brian Cubbison has posted a very good Q & A with Howard Owens of The Batavian, whose real-world experience at hyperlocal will be drawn on for years to come. It’s a solid read for Owens’ takes on advertising, working with local businesses and citizen journalism, but what really grabbed me was an exchange about digital media in general:
[T]he way people interact with digital media is much more personal. Our digital devices are much more personal than a family-shared television, or even a newspaper, which has the feel of something everybody else is reading, too. It’s a mass media vs. personal media mindset. So communication on personal media is more conversational, more of a mindset that communication is one-to-one, not one-to-many.
At first glance this flies in the face of the popular idea that the Web makes us fickle consumers of disposable content. You know the drill: We don’t read, unless it’s short articles formatted as cute lists, and we certainly don’t read important stuff because an in-depth story about the fighting in Marja is just a click removed from the latest starlet who forgot to wear underwear to the club.
I’ve always thought that idea was wrong, or more precisely that it carelessly assumed all Web readers behave like a few Web readers. But at the same time, I had to admit that yes, people generally read things on the Web with a certain impatience. I didn’t have to look further than my own surfing habits to find evidence that Web articles do best when they stick to a single topic, and that long-form pieces have to be really good to keep their audience. I tried to dig into how both of these things could be true in this column about writing for the Web that I wrote for the National Sports Journalism Center, arguing that understanding your audience and what it wants was far more important than any one-size-fits-all Web advice. A reader wanting to know what’s going on at noon on a workday needs to be served very differently than one looking for a better understanding of a complex issue on a Sunday morning.
I thought that column turned out OK, but had the nagging feeling that some key piece of the picture was still missing. I think it’s what Owens is talking about above. Reading a newspaper or watching a newscast, I’m interacting with a product that’s a bundle intended to appeal to a general audience, of which I’m a small part. I tailor that product for myself by choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But searching for information online is different. I’m looking for something that fits my needs as exactly as possible.
So what does that mean?
For one thing, bundled products have an uphill battle to engage me, because by their nature they’re tailored for general audiences and the starting point of engaging with them is winnowing out information that isn’t relevant. This is why the Web blows bundled brands to literal and figurative bits.
For another, I’m going to read ruthlessly. I’m looking for something specific, and if what I read isn’t it, I’ll stop reading and look elsewhere. If what I’m reading is what I’m looking for but the execution is lacking, I’m much more likely to quit part of the way through and look elsewhere, because there may be other sources that do a better job. This isn’t true in print: If I want to know what’s going on in Afghanistan and all I have is the print New York Times, the fact that the Times’ Afghanistan story wanders off into larger questions about nation-building is less likely to make me stop reading. It’s as close as I’m going to get, and I know it.
But there’s a flipside to this that I didn’t see until I read the Q&A with Owens. If what I find online is a fit, I’m going to engage with it more closely than I would engage with a print story or the right story on the news, because it feels like it was made exactly for me. I found it and I chose it. The ruthless abandonment and the close engagement are two sides of the same coin. I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.
In the digital world, every article or product starts as an uncertain prospect for holding my attention. It has to succeed, and quickly. Online, the battle is always uphill. But there’s potentially a greater reward. If that battle is won, if an online product succeeds, I will be more loyal to it. Because I chose it.
I’m very pleased to announce that EidosMedia has agreed to sponsor Reinventing the Newsroom.
EidosMedia is a Milan-based maker of innovative editing-and-publishing platforms for news organizations. I first worked with them in my last couple of years at The Wall Street Journal Online as part of a team tasked with replacing Dow Jones’s editorial systems and rethinking its organizational hierarchy. After I left the Journal, I joined EidosMedia and was their Web CMS evangelist for more than a year, during which time I launched this blog.
In addition to the sponsorship agreement, I may serve as a consultant for EidosMedia on individual projects.
The rules for this blog remain the same as when I was an EidosMedia employee: The opinions expressed here are my own and not those of EidosMedia, and I will comment without fear or favor.
Yesterday at Nieman Journalism Lab, Mac Slocum offered a roundup of the arguments for requiring governments to continue printing public notices in newspapers instead of doing so online, summarizing the case as made by newspaper-industry lobbyist Tonda Rush. I commented quickly (and a bit viscerally) — and then found myself coming back to why, exactly, I’d gotten so upset.
Granted, the pro-printing arguments seemed pretty weak, and sleeping on them hasn’t exactly changed my mind.
The first pro-print argument is that there would be startup costs associated with moving public notices to the Web, and the cost-savings wouldn’t be very much — 1% to 2% of county and municipal budgets at best, Rush says. The startup costs seem like a red herring. According to Slocum, 40 states have proposed letting local governments opt for the Web, only to be opposed furiously by newspaper lobbyists. I have a certain reflexive cynicism about government efficiency, but I doubt that local governments would be clamoring to put public notices online if the startup costs were self-defeatingly high. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear that my county had figured out a relatively painless way to save 1% to 2% of its budget.
The second argument is that print has a permanence online doesn’t. It’s at least interesting to hear this claim unaccompanied by rhapsodies about the crinkle of paper and the clink of spoons at the breakfast table, but beyond that I’m unmoved. By this measure, why not record public records on stone tablets, as a safeguard against some world-wide conflagration that would turn our archived paper and microfilm to drifts of ash and sad little curls of plastic? A secondary argument is that litigation favors iron-clad documentation, and the print model is better for those purposes. That’s a better case, but I’m rarely persuaded when the reason to keep something boils down to an inefficient model that hasn’t kept up with the times. Change the model!
The third argument is that you can’t trust the government to publish and maintain official records. Frankly, here either somebody’s tin-foil hat has fallen off or people are being awfully disingenuous. If you subscribe to this paranoid mindset, does the idea of newspapers as watchdogs make things any better?
But let’s back up. Let’s go back to the question that should always be asked when adapting to the Web: If we were starting today, would we do this? This time, though, let’s not think about it from a newspaper-revenue point of view. Rather, let’s think about it from a public-records point of view.
We want public records to be official, to be visible and to be discoverable later on. And we want accessing them to be as easy as possible for as many people as possible.
OK, so what’s the best way to accomplish this? We might say, “I think the best way is to pay newspaper publishers to run these notices in extremely small type to the right of this week’s listings of acoustic guitar players appearing in coffee shops and below the syndicated parenting advice.” But it seems more likely that we’d say, “Let’s put these public notices in a database so they’re searchable and publish them to the Web, so interested citizens can find them whenever they like with a couple of mouse clicks and a bit of typing.” (And while we’re on the subject, why on earth aren’t news organizations making use of their head start to create these databases and Web sites themselves? Did we really learn nothing from Craigslist and Monster.com?)
And now we get to what made me mad.
Newspapers’ champions often tout the press as an engine of a healthy democracy, and papers as having a civic mission. And I mostly agree with that stuff. (Minus the “paper” part of it, anyway.) But if you’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk. Doesn’t making public records as visible and searchable as possible improve the health of democracy too? Newspapers rarely look better than when they’re taking powerful industry groups to task for letting their own bottom lines obstruct the public good. How is that not exactly what’s happening here?
I believe in news organizations having a sense of civic mission. I don’t think that’s naïve or corny or out of date. But if your sense of civic mission only extends as far as the boundaries of your own parochial interests, it’s not worth very much.