Reinventing the Newsroom

Willie Sutton’s Newspaper Tips

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on April 29, 2009

Willie Sutton, it’s said, robbed banks because that’s where the money was.

Which is the way newspapers ought to look at Facebook and Twitter: You need to set up shop there because they’re where the readers are.

sutton1For newspapers, wading into social media can feel like a bigger cultural change than going Web-first, or interacting with readers in discussion forums and comments. There are a lot of reasons for this reluctance. First of all, papers are struggling just to survive day-to-day amid a drumbeat of bad news. Culturally, there’s still some reluctance to come down from the mountain, to borrow yesterday’s metaphor. Strategically, there’s a worry that engaging social media will force overburdened papers to chase fads — after all, Friendster’s rule was usurped by MySpace, which was in turn thrown down by Facebook, and so it’s logical to assume that uneasy rests the social-media crown. (And what the heck’s Twitter?)

And there’s a problem of focus: Facebook and Twitter are for individuals, not entities, so what’s a paper to do? If individual reporters and editors reach out on Facebook and tweet, the outreach and the brand are fragmented. (And central control is lost.) On the other hand, it’s hard to convey any personality if the paper reaches out as a collective entity. Hard, but not impossible — look at what the Chicago Tribune has done with Colonel Tribune. Their “digital front man” has more than 9,500 Twitter followers and a cult following in the city. (At Mashable, Stuart Foster interviews Daniel Honigman, Tribune Interactive’s social-media strategist, about the project. All those Chicagoans wearing Colonel Tribune-style paper hats at a meetup? Clear evidence that the Tribune has a hit on its hands.)

One way or another, papers need to reach out. They need to experiment, and accept that that will mean some failures. Because social media is where the readers are — and where they’re already primed for a conversation. Joining that conversation will create relationships and help papers rebuild their communities of readers — which is the way forward for journalism in the digital age.

Blogs As Conversation Starters and Story Leads

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on April 28, 2009

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.

Next Stop Florida

Posted in Creating Context, Digital Experiments, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 21, 2009

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.

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What Do We Call This New News Thing?

Posted in Branding, Digital Experiments, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 17, 2009

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.

Suggestions cheerfully accepted (and much appreciated) via comments, email, Twitter, Facebook message or any other way you like.

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?

Will Journalism Online Succeed?

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on April 15, 2009

Yesterday Steven Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery Jr. took the wraps off Journalism Online LLC, a new company whose mission is to make tools allowing content creators to charge for their work online. Journalism Online sounds agnostic about exactly how publishers would do that, offering options ranging from full subscriptions to day passes to purchases of individual stories — basically, every point along the spectrum of potential paid-content options that have been increasingly debated as the brutal shakeout of the newspaper world has intensified.

I was amused to see the initial takes on Journalism Online fall primarily into two buckets: The mainstream media mostly approached it as “People You’ve Heard of Are Doing Something” story, while the digital-journalism pundits mostly dismissed it as Same Old Same Old. (To my mind, the most-nuanced takes so far come from Mark Potts and Ken Doctor.)

Myself, I’m of two minds about the company’s prospects.

I wouldn’t take any venture that includes Brill, Crovitz and Hindery lightly — not to mention that Web vet Merrill Brown and super-lawyers David Boies and Theodore Olsen are also onboard. Those names and their associated track records will ensure that the doors of the top folks in newspaper firms and technology companies will be open, and that should lead to a lot of conversations that need to be had.

More specifically, I wouldn’t bet against Gordon Crovitz. One of my first posts on this blog was my take on paying for news, from the perspective of a Wall Street Journal Online alumnus. In that post, I noted that WSJ.com’s pay strategy was actually a lot more nuanced than the usual descriptions make it out to be, with most individual stories available for free, particularly if you come in via Google News. It’s “get the parts for free, pay for the whole,” and from what I saw at WSJ.com it seemed to work quite well, allowing WSJ.com to participate in the link economy and attract a steady stream of new potential readers without damaging its subscriber base — once readers come to value the Journal’s content, 40 cents a day seems like a bargain for not having to assemble the paper piecemeal. (See more of that post for why I think dismissals of the Journal as a unique paid-content case are far too breezy.)

Gordon spearheaded the “parts are free, pay for whole” strategy (my very soul rebels at the term “freemium”), and turned me from a doubter into a convert. He knows what he’s doing.

But here’s what makes me not quite a convert this time, at least not yet. Interviewed by Paid Content’s Staci D. Kramer, Crovitz stressed that Journalism Online isn’t going to be a consulting group. I absolutely understand why he’d resist that, but the problem is that a lot of newspapers are so mired in the quicksand of the digital transition that they have no chance of charging anybody for their current online products. They desperately need some direction before they can do that.

As I said in my Memo for San Diego, news organizations have a lot of strengths, but they’re wasting them trying to shore up the crumbling printcentric model when they should be figuring out how to make them serve the Webcentric model. While nobody knows exactly what that model will be, creating a strong, self-identifying and self-reinforcing community of readers is a crucial part of that. That’s the foundation on which new contexts for news will be built, readers will be re-engaged and new business models will arise.

Some of the biggest U.S. papers are such strong brands that they already have those communities, even in cases where they haven’t turned them into robust digital communities quite yet. And if Journalism Online can help them launch successful paid-content initiatives, that in itself would obviously be a watershed for the newspaper industry. But it wouldn’t mean that lots of other papers would be ready to do the same, or that the specter of shuttered newsrooms and extinct titles would stop haunting us. Many papers need direction before they can even think of charging. For them, Journalism Online might be the final piece of the puzzle — but they have a lot of pieces to put together first.

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The AP Reinvents Pathfinder

Posted in Branding, Creating Context, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on April 13, 2009

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.

Thursday Reads

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on April 9, 2009

I spent the morning doing a demo of our software for a potential customer, and while it’s always exciting to show off our stuff (particularly to editors who are being ground to bits by their existing systems), demos leave me exhausted even when they go off without a hitch. So, with mild apologies, a tour of interesting recent thoughts on digital-age journalism and the challenges it faces:

Ken Doctor offers a wide-ranging examination of Google, fair use and the link economy that I found intriguing and refreshingly fair-minded, an attempt to restart the conversation by staying away from both “Google is ripping us off” and “the link economy is all.”

For my part, I find the idea that Google is ripping off news organizations thoroughly ludicrous — Google delivers news organizations huge amounts of traffic, and news organizations have failed to take advantage of that traffic by creating new context to turn drive-by readers into repeat visitors. I’m not saying that’s easy to do, just that news organizations have done very little to address the problem, acting as if the context of a news story within the overall site is enough. That failure is in no way Google’s fault.

But there are reasons to potentially ask Google to do more, and they stem not from some bedrock unfairness in how the relationship between Google and news organizations has evolved, but from Google’s own mission statement. Part of what makes Google breathtaking to its admirers (I’m certainly one) and faintly ludicrous to its detractors is the company’s insistence that it has ambitions beyond being a technological colossus. This dates back to the company’s April 2004 IPO filing, in which Sergey Brin and Larry Page envisioned a corporate foundation and imagined that “someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world’s problems.” The foundation exists and funds efforts to predict and prevent pandemics; empower the poor with information about public services; invest in small businesses in the developing world; accelerate electric cars’ commercialization; and make renewable energy cheaper. (For a nice overview, see this WSJ article by my former colleague Kevin J. Delaney.)

Now, a couple of points:

  • It would be pretty cheeky to equate a helping hand for the news industry with preventing pandemics. Let’s keep some perspective.
  • Google has always resisted the idea of getting into the news business itself, bluntly noting that content isn’t what it’s good at. I think it should continue to heed its own advice.
  • The fact that news organizations may serve a public good is no reason that the laws of market physics should be bent.

That said, I firmly believe newspapers are a public good and contribute to the health of democracy and the free flow of ideas. (Which isn’t the same as saying a post-newspaper ecology of news organizations and sources couldn’t also serve that valuable role.) And given Google’s proud evocation that it has corporate values that go far beyond P & L statements, that seems like grounds for the kind of conversation with Google that Ken Doctor suggests, with Google serving as a proxy for search engines in general and the overall link economy.

It’s foolish to try and stuff Web genies back in their bottles, as some newspaper captains with ships on the rocks seem to want to do. But you can reject that without assuming that the current models for Web monetization and content production/aggregation are perfect and eternal, handed down by God with Tim Berners-Lee as his prophet.

But if we have that conversation with Google, let’s approach it honestly, putting aside jabs about Internet parasites and arglebargle about Google needing a license to help consumers find information. Let’s acknowledge that what we’re talking about is, at its core, philanthropy and admit we’re appealing to Google’s sense of social mission. There’s no shame in this — Google is in the philanthropy business, after all. But let’s call it what it is.

Three more posts to check out:

At Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld takes the idea that the topic should replace the article as the basic unit of digital-age news a step further, discussing how reporters would work in what he calls the “content cascade.” Simultaneously high-minded and practical, and very interesting.

Steve Yelvington offers the results of an anecdotal survey of newsrooms that have intergrated their print and online arms, and finds some lessons, including ones that I found disturbing but all too familiar: Too often, what results is less an integration than a takeover of online by print, with new print bosses who know nothing about the medium running online shops like it’s 1998. This is the exact opposite of what newsrooms ought to be doing, and is making an already tough transformation much harder.

At Saving the Media, Gina Chen brings the conversation about new media right down to earth by examining how the recent Binghamton shootings played out in the online news world. All of the lessons Gina draws are worth reading and re-reading and thinking about.

Dean Singleton’s Metaphor

Posted in Cultural Change, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on April 7, 2009

At PaidContent.org, Staci D. Kramer chats with Associated Press chairman (and MediaNews CEO) Dean Singleton about the AP’s Monday announcement that it’s going to … do something. (Seriously, that’s pretty much all the AP said.) What really jumped out at me from the back-and-forth was this Singleton quote: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time. Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

Really?

Returns tend to diminish quickly in games of No, It’s More Like This Metaphor, but I can’t let that one go by, because it seems really off to me. Print is not the meat, and online is neither the salt nor the pepper. The news is the meat — print vs. online is a discussion of how the meat is raised, prepared, delivered and packaged, which is something totally different.

With that new starting point, let’s try the metaphor again and see where it gets us. (Please note: I’m not using butcher as a charged metaphor — I’m just going with what I was given.)

Meat used to be obtained directly from butchers who knew an enormous amount about cattle and had served long apprenticeships that gave them expertise in cutting and preparing meat — and who were also pretty much your only source if you wanted to put steaks or burgers on the table. Now consumers overwhelmingly want to go to the big new shiny supermarkets that have moved into town. They like not having to go from store to store for everything they need and they’ve become infatuated with all these extra choices. And the way they obtain meat is now very different: They want it waiting for them packaged in an assortment of cuts, and they no longer spend an enormous amount of time chatting with the butchers who work for the supermarkets and making use of their training and their advice.

A lot of butchers complain that this new way of doing things isn’t as good as the old way. They’re working harder for less — and tragically, fewer of them are working at all. They argue that customers will no longer pay what the best cuts of meat really cost, and are going home with inferior steaks and chops. Some customers are even buying their meat outside the supermarket, at delis and convenience stores and from guys setting up little roadside smokehouses. Whereever they’re getting it, a lot of customers seem like they no longer really understand how that meat gets to their table, going through life completely ignorant of all the time and care and money it takes to make a good steak.

And you know what? The butchers may well be right about all this. They are working harder for less money, and there is reason to worry that their skills will be lost, and that we will be lessened for not understanding how food gets to our tables. And it’s not the butchers’ fault — it was their bosses who responded to the rise of supermarkets by opening lackluster ones when they bothered opening them at all.

But the customers have spoken. Right or wrong, they aren’t going to the neighborhood butchers in sufficient numbers to support all the ones who used to have shops. And despite the campaigns of some in the Butchers Guild, no one is going to order the supermarkets closed or give butcher shops extra money to do things they old way or succeed in taking the meat out of supermarkets or cajole supermarkets into paying far more for meat.

If you’re a butcher or responsible for the livelihood of butchers, what do you do? Well, you could gulp and open your own shop anyway — some entrepreneurial butchers still do pretty well, even today. You could try an approach nobody’s tried before — maybe there are customers who will pay a premium for you to deliver meat to their homes and prepare it in front of them, with an explanation of how it was raised and how best to cook it.

Or while trying these things, you could work at translating a butcher’s skills to the new setting of the supermarket, figuring out which tried-and-true skills still have value and which new skills butchers need to learn. Because we all have to eat.

Memo for San Diego: Start by Creating Communities

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 6, 2009

I’m not in San Diego, though given the grisly weather here in New York City I wish I were. Nor am I a newspaper executive. (And I’m very glad I’m not!)

But if I were somehow transported across the country and magicked into a suit and tie for the formerly secret meeting taking place on the sidelines of the Newspaper Association of America’s annual get-together, I’d say something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, we are on a burning raft. Our papercentric business model is vanishing, and needs to be replaced with something new. Nobody, least of all me, knows what that something new will be. But I can guess at the underpinnings of it.

All is not lost. We have a business with a number of strengths that executives in more-nascent industries would kill for: a highly trained work force with skills that aren’t irreplaceable but are hard to duplicate; actual revenue and customers; a longstanding place in society that even doubters and grousers regard as critical; and an institutional history that’s woven through the larger history of our cities and towns.

The problem is we need to transfer those strengths from serving the crumbling model to the new one that’s being built experiment by experiment. Now, it’s hard to place bets on experiments, but most all of the experiments seem to agree on one thing: Our news operations have to become part of strong, self-identifying and self-reinforcing communities of readers.

Web sites that work are more than just distribution vehicles for producers of content — they’re communities where readers come to visit and stay a while. There, those readers talk back to stories and news. They talk with each other, forming friendships and romances and enmities and cliques. They push sites in directions they want them to go (which may not be the same destinations the site creators have in mind). They point out errors, logical flaws and missed opportunities. They bring news of their own to the discussion. They care for the communities and defend them against both outsiders who would do them harm and insiders who aren’t living up to community standards.

There’s no made-to-order recipe for creating communities like that — when a site “tips” and becomes one, it’s wonderful to see. In my own daily Web rounds I see it lots of places, from snarky sports sites to Brooklyncentric blogs to discussions of Star Wars to my own co-written blog about the Mets to Facebook to Twitter.

But I don’t see it very much on newspaper sites.

Which, if you think about it, is very strange. We have traffic, yes — but we’ve done poorly in getting those visitors to stay, in turning traffic into communities. By now it’s not terribly helpful to debate what we did wrong — better by far to figure out how to change it. We can do that in a number of closely related ways. We have to push our reporters and writers farther down from the mountaintop, so they’re not just writing for readers but interacting with them in forums, live chats, beat blogs and blog chats and social media. We have to pull our readers higher up the mountain, so that their own stories and voices and news have a place in our news organizations. We have to grab hold of our towns in any way we can, so our newspapers are once again gateways for finding out everything from society events to Little League games, latest crime stats to distant history, drink specials to local-government salaries. We have to get that information to readers whether it comes from our own newsroom, our competitors’, or from readers themselves. And we have to do it via whatever device or medium our readers want.

That may sound like a laundry list of stuff, but it’s really two ideas that will reinforce each other: Reclaim our towns and build communities around that work.

Right now there’s what looks like a curious inversion in the world of the Web: Hot social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter command breathless headlines despite having no clearly defined plan for being viable businesses, while long-established businesses like ours are treated like they’re already dead. But the conventional cyber-wisdom is correct: Facebook and Twitter may not have enviable P&L sheets, but they have a bedrock foundation of solid, self-reinforcing community upon which they can build. For the most part, we don’t.

That self-reinforcing community is the foundation that every news operations that wishes to survive must now build. Without it, attempting to implement any new monetization scheme would be a doomed exercise in building on sand. The sooner we create communities, the sooner we can come back here and turn our attention to what they’ll pay for and how they’ll pay for it.

That’s our mission. Now let’s go out and get to it.

A Digital-Age Editor’s Lament

Posted in Branding, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on April 2, 2009

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.

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