Reinventing the Newsroom

Second Verse, Same as the First

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on May 29, 2009

So a bunch of newspaper barons (is there a vaguely annoying collective name for such a group, a la “pride of lions” or “murder of crows”) met behind closed doors again to talk about how to make people pay for online content. Last time they were in San Diego; this time they were in Rosemont, Ill. Which is another distressing trend for the newspaper industry: At this rate, next month we’ll hear the barons are drinking room-temperature mini-Cokes in a half-ballroom in some hotel in Newark.

As before, I imagine there was a lot of talk about a lot of potential payment models (subscriptions, micropayments, tip jars, a tax on ISPs), I worry there was plenty of saber-rattling about aggregators and middlemen (Google and Yahoo and blogs, oh my), and I hope there was some brainstorming about new things (maybe UGC, video, Twitter, getting a cut of Web-based transactions). But what I fear is that there wasn’t a lot of talk about the real problem — about the need to make newspapers a satisfying Web experience that will attract the kind of loyal, engaged audience around which you can build new business models. That’s the foundation that needs to be repaired — or better yet, rebuilt completely.

Last week I wrote about the need for newspapers to find new contexts for the article, based on the different ways readers can arrive at a single article, and lamented that too many papers still treat the article only as part of the article/section/paper model they carried over from print. If I’m reading about GM’s planned filing for bankruptcy protection, I may be showed breadcrumbs that I’m in the automotive section, or national, or business. But it’s increasingly unlikely that I came to that article by starting with the home page and working my way through the site navigation. Maybe I searched Google for all the coverage I could find about GM’s plans. Maybe I came in because I was reading an aggregator’s feed of stories about Detroit. Maybe a Facebook friend shared a link. If I fall into any of those categories, breadcrumbs and navigation links and the like are noise; I’m looking for signal.

I’m not against charging for content, and I don’t believe it’s impossible or necessarily inadvisable to do so. I’ve written before that the Online Journal’s hybrid model should be better understood and more seriously considered by other publishers. But to that, add a pretty huge caveat: I think that’s a losing battle while most newspapers remain unsatisfying Web experiences.

Before you even consider charging subscription fees, trying micropayments or what have you, fix that problem. Throw out the print paper as a starting point — it’ll just distract you. Instead, take inventory of the news, photos, maps, event listings and other pieces of information your potential readers need. Make sure they can find that stuff, whether or not it was created by your own writers, editors and artists. Give it to them when they need it and how they need it, and figure out when and how and why they’re asking so you can anticipate what else they might need. To that, add ways for them to talk with you and with each other — not just by letting them comment, but by letting them meet and mingle around your information and add their own, or easily take your information to where they already meet and mingle. Explain to your writers and editors and artists that their responsibilities include being part of that conversation, and promise that their voices and personalities won’t be muzzled.

Sites that do those things are vibrant communities that attract new people and become habits for readers, including me. My daily rounds include several of them, covering everything from Star Wars and technology to baseball and Brooklyn. They’re places I’m loyal to and engaged with and care deeply about — and would pay to support if asked. But much as I love journalism and much as I devour news, I can’t say the same about very many newspapers.

Solving the Problem of Drive-By Traffic

Posted in Branding, Communities, Creating Context, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on May 21, 2009

One of the basic challenges for today’s newspapers is this: The fundamental context around which their Web sites are built is broken.

In my last post, I offered a tongue-in-cheek tour of the pain of redesigning home pages. But that tour didn’t address a problem with which papers are still coming to terms: Many readers no longer come to them through the home page or the section pages, despite the amount of hand-wringing done by editors, designers, developers and business folks over such pages.

The very nature of the Web atomized newspapers, making the single article the basic unit of the newspaper. With the physical paper out of the picture, Web newspapers knew they had to create a new context for articles, and most soon grasped that making a paper work online demanded more than simply transforming print sections into navigation tabs.  The online audience was different, and needed a different context. (Compounding this challenge was the fact that papers also wanted to cater to print readers making their way online. At the Wall Street Journal Online, we had to figure out a name for the paper’s “Weekend” section that was recognizable to print readers but also informed online readers that the section wasn’t just updated on Friday and Saturday. Good luck with that one.)

Such debates are beginning to seem quaint. Today the article remains the basic unit of newspapers, but the problem of context has utterly changed. Readers do still come to articles through a paper’s internal Web navigation, but the much larger audience that’s being pursued finds individual articles through search, or through third-party news aggregators, or through links emailed by friends, shared on social-networking sites, or tweeted as shrunken, transformed URLs.

The atomization of the article is now complete, and it’s left newspapers grappling with the unhappy realization that greater traffic may not translate into greater revenue or reader loyalty. Too many page views from searching, aggregation and sharing are “drive-by traffic” — instead of exploring a paper’s other offerings, a reader consumes an article and is gone, perhaps never to return.

The logical goal, at least within the traditional newspaper framework, is to convert more of those drive-by readers to repeat visitors and then to members of a vibrant community of readers. But reaching that goal has to begin with an understanding of the different ways readers arrive at an article — and that’s lacking. Most papers still treat all readers as if they’d burrowed down to an article through the home page, but that’s true for fewer and fewer of them. The old context is broken, to the extent that it ever worked, and needs to be replaced.

But with what?

I’ve been thinking about that this week, and I think the answer is with as many different contexts are there are different-sized audiences.

When it comes to devices and services, newspapers are realizing that they have to go whereever readers want them to be — whether that means Facebook, Twitter or the iPhone. But the same logic has to applied to readers’ arrival — they have to be treated in as many different ways as there are decent-sized audiences that produce them.

A reader who arrived at an article because it scored high in search results might respond to articles, pages or other content related to those search terms. A reader who came via a Facebook link might respond to other articles his Facebook friends have (publicly) shared. A reader who arrived through a Most Popular list might be enticed by snippets of other articles on that list. What works in one case probably won’t work in another — and few if any readers are going to be engaged by the default navigation of a newspaper site they may have never visited.

And in every case, the newspaper should offer dramatic, in-your-face branding for drive-by readers. I’d love to see a paper survey such readers — because I bet in a depressingly large number of cases, the readers won’t even have registered what site they were just on.

I firmly believe that the long-term strategy for papers adapting to the age of digital news is to rebuild the reader communities online that they once anchored in print. But that strategy has to begin with treating readers properly whenever and however they arrive.

A Cool Solution to an Old Design Problem

Posted in Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on May 19, 2009

The veteran minor-league manager Rocky Bridges once quipped that “every man thinks he can do three things better than any other man: build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.”  It’s a good line, one I might update for our age by going gender-neutral (of course) and subbing out “build a fire” in favor of “design a home page.”

I should know — I’ve been through at least three substantial redesigns of newspaper home pages, more than enough to teach me some hard truths:

  • People who aren’t involved with the project but have power over it (“stakeholders,” in meeting-speak) excel at tearing things down, but the next workable solution proposed by a stakeholder might be the first.
  • Focus groups are smorgasbords from which points are cherry-picked to support agendas. You could spend a lot less money and get the same effect by writing random things on flash cards, only nobody would get to eat free candy and doze off in the dark behind the one-way glass.
  • Everyone will take a hard line against cluttering the home page with other departments’ me-too links to services no reader wants. These links will all wind up on the home page anyway.
  • It’s a terrible moment when you realize you’ve learned how to navigate the spread of Cosi sandwiches to find the kind you like.
  • It will be obvious early that there isn’t enough room on the home page for everything that everybody thinks needs to be there, but any effort to talk frankly about this will be dismissed as negative thinking.

Too often that’s the process, and a newspaper that follows it tends to wind up with a camel. Except the committee that designed a wacky-looking horse usually also loads it up with so many links and widgets and gimcracks that the poor beast can hardly walk. (By the way, I’m not picking on my old paper — or any other one, really. These unhappy truths are the same pretty much everywhere, and the problem is the process, which is simultaneously the fault of nobody and everybody.)

Anyway, the last problem — not enough room, not enough willingness to admit there’s not enough room — is the biggest roadblock to escaping a home-page redesign. A common response is a Hail Mary to the design team to break the impasse by coming up with … something. This also tends not to work — confronted with an impossible problem at the 11th hour, somebody comes up with some fiendishly difficult mechanism that leaves the developers gaping in disbelief, makes the project later, and is then subverted by annoyed editors.

Having been through this, I’m reluctant to criticize anything “below the fold” on a home page, and my heart reflexively goes out to any Web publication that unveils a redesign and then spends the next three weeks getting cuffed around by readers demanding that it be changed back. I know the bitter trail of PowerPoints and wireframes and half-eaten cookie plates the people involved have traversed, and what it’s like to reach the end of the journey only to take a beating.

Yet now and again I see something and my eyes light up. For the latest example, look at the top of the home page of Ars Technica. After some pretty standard stuff (horizontal navigation, various arglebargle crammed into the banner), it moves to a mediabox-style presentation of “big art” designed to attract the reader’s eye, along with headlines. But when you mouse over a photo, a summary of the article springs up over it.

You can learn more about the story without clicking into it. Neither the art nor the summary is chopped down because of the need to leave space for the other. The summary appears where the reader’s attention is already focused, engaging him without distracting him. It’s a good trick, one that serves readers and publishers alike.

Will it solve everything? No — but it’s pretty neat. Wish I’d had it — and the option of wasabi roast-beef sandwiches — back in my own home-page meetings.

That Whole Dow Jones Social-Media Thing

Posted in Branding, Communities, Cultural Change, Social Media, The Journalist as Brand, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 15, 2009

You might have heard that the Wall Street Journal issued rules for how its reporters and editors should conduct themselves on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. I’d like to add a few points to the conversation, while stating up front that I’m going to tread a bit carefully, seeing how Dow Jones is my former employer and one of my current employer’s customers. (Call me a tremendous wuss if you want.)

  • Reading criticism of the memo, it’s easy to miss that the vast majority of the directives are thoroughly non-controversial. Don’t use fake names, don’t pick messy public fights, don’t get political or partisan, don’t send your friends and family into battle on your behalf, don’t advocate for specific products or solutions if that’s not your job, don’t friend your top-secret sources. All basic, sound advice, and nothing that should give even the most networked Web journalist pause.
  • Anybody who’s worked for any big organization knows there are Rules and there are rules. The former are electrified fences, clearly marked and well-respected by any responsible employee. The latter are things for which you get written up if you’ve screwed up something more substantive — the corporate equivalent of disorderly conduct. Memos don’t make such distinctions; worker bees do without breaking a sweat.

Ultimately, it’s two points in the Dow Jones memo that are drawing the real fire — the apparent prohibition against crowdsourcing and the warning about mixing business and personal.

I understand why people have seen the warning not to discuss unpublished articles or interviews as a crowdsourcing veto, but as a Journal alum I doubt it was intended that way — given the Journal’s long and proud history of news that moves financial markets, I read it as a reiteration of the paper’s deeply held and understandable prohibition against showing your cards to competitors, sharp-eyed investors or the subjects of  articles. I doubt the Journal would apply the same rules for reporters covering the SEC to those investigating fitness or travel trends. Besides, journalists have always been crowdsourcers of a sort — you could fill China with the number of people quoted in trend pieces who turn out to be friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends. As with so many things, the Web has improved this process (sources come from wider social circles, as they always should have) and made it more efficient, while also making it transparent and preserving a record of it.

The second point is the warning about business and pleasure — and the real rub. Both journalists and the papers they work for are adapting to fairly massive cultural changes here, with pressure to change coming from all sides:

  • Web readers are wading through a glut of commoditized information from a dizzying number of sources, and personality is a welcome bit of signal amid all this noise.  But that encourages a level of openness and disclosure from journalists that marks a change from the old rules.
  • Papers are struggling to deal with the low returns (in money and reader loyalty) made from drive-by traffic to articles from search and sharing of links. With the article having replaced the paper as the unit by which news is consumed, papers are experimenting with creating new contexts to capture reader attention and loyalty. Turning writers into “micro-brands” is an obvious answer. But it’s less obvious how much of that brand equity benefits the paper as a whole — or if it can be made to do so any longer.
  • Journalists are keenly aware that their articles are now disseminated world-wide, that they can distribute and promote their work themselves, and that the tumult in the newspaper industry means job security is but a memory. All of this understandably pushes journalists to think of themselves as brands to be looked after, in ways they didn’t consider just a few years ago.
  • Younger journalists have grown up in public with Google, email and social media, and think very differently about where the lines are drawn between professional and personal and private and public. But they don’t make the rules just yet — nor is it obvious that their birthright as digital natives means they should.

All of this has encouraged and even pushed journalists to be more open about themselves with readers. It’s also led to a very interesting push and pull between journalists and papers, one that’s unfolding differently in different places. Like a lot of journalism today, it’s exciting and a bit dizzying — but also can be uncertain and even painful.

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The News Blueprint

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on May 12, 2009

Over at Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts offers a terrific seven-point plan for newspaper innovation. As Mark himself notes, there’s nothing particularly new in his advice. But it’s thoughtful and well said, and bears repeating, because it’s a way forward instead of an invitation to stare into the abyss or a call to rebuild what’s been pulverized. These are turbulent times, and we need posts like this to make sure we keep on moving instead of hunkering down.

The only thing I’d add to Mark’s plan is implicit in a lot of what he proposes, but I think also deserves emphasizing: We should be investing and experimenting in community-building. Newspapers need to grow online communities around their refocused content, creating the digital equivalent of the offline communities of readers for which they were once social glue and civic habit. Only by doing that can newspapers trade the minuscule returns from search’s drive-by traffic for repeated views from a loyal, engaged community. And only once those communities exist can newspapers find new ways to make what they do pay.

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A Twitter Experiment

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments, Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 11, 2009

Last week’s Editor & Publisher/Mediaweek Interactive Media Conference was by turns interesting and depressing, which was about what I’d expect from an industry trying some fascinating experiments while enduring a financial battering. I was intrigued by stories like David Cohn’s Spot.us, interested in the possibilities of placebogging and printcasting, and listened avidly to Chris Krewson’s wise, entertaining review of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Web efforts. Yet every note of optimism was shadowed by loss, by talk of whether or not newspapers would survive, of how start-ups hoped to not get yanked down by the vortex of sinking ships, of doing a bit more with a lot less. As Mr. Krewson himself noted, his paper has filed for bankruptcy protection.

But one of the most interesting things I wound up thinking about wasn’t on the program — it was, for me, an accidental discovery.

I got on Twitter a couple of months ago, and like a lot of people I didn’t really get it at first — it seemed like Facebook stripped down to status updates and governed by subtly different social rules. I like the “ambient intimacy” of Facebook and how it’s changed my relationships with friends and acquaintances, but Twitter seemed duplicative. On the other hand, there was a sense of fun about it. That 140-character limit forced status updates to be disciplined, if sometimes haiku-like, and there was a welcome sense of what-the-heck experimentation, of kicking the tires. You could make of Twitter whatever you wanted, and that was enough to keep me playing with it.

The first thing I came to like about Twitter was that it didn’t require the same often-strained reciprocity as Facebook — I could keep up with journalism thinkers, technologists and people I found interesting but didn’t know very well without having to pester them to accept me as a “friend.”

The second thing I came to like snuck up on me. Little by little, I realized I was increasingly hearing news first not from my aggregated news on My Yahoo, but from tweets. This was more of a slowly dawning realization that my habits had changed than a thunderclap moment (like the first time you went to Google instead of AltaVista, or the first night you used TiVo), but it was still an interesting change. By following people who were information junkies, cared about things I cared about and offered opinions I valued, I’d accidentally created a pretty good crowdsourced news service for myself.

At the Interactive Media Conference, I saw someone had set up a hashtag — #IMConf — but the presence of Twitter didn’t really register until I found myself fretting over how I was going to blog effectively while attending all the sessions I wanted to see and meeting all the folks I wanted to meet. Oh yeah, Twitter. You could tweet too, you know.

At first it felt awkward. My years as a reporter left me perfectly confident about separating the news signal from the presentation noise and knowing what to tweet, but there was a learning curve about how to do it. Like any journalism veteran, I have a good mental map of various newspaper lengths and (longish) blog posts — I know if I’m halfway to saying what I want to say, or two-thirds of the way there, and understand without thinking about it how I’ll get to the finish line. But I had no such navigational ability when writing 132 characters at a time. (Gotta save room for the hashtag!) I found myself writing and rewriting as the conversation went on without me — and when I did tweet, I’d discover that other folks in the session had tweeted first and done a better job. (Trying to keep up with Placeblogger’s Tish Grier was particularly humbling.)

I also noticed, in reloading the IMConf hashtag, that there were a lot of duplicative tweets. That was fine for individual Twitterers and anyone following them, but made the hashtag noisy for those following the overall conversation. So I stopped tweeting newsy stuff and stepped back, offering bits of analysis and asking questions as they came to mind. That, I hoped, would be a better use of both my nascent Twitter skills and my journalism experience — and, hopefully, make the hashtag more diverse and potentially more interesting.

As the conference continued, you could see some other people had done the same thing — they’d found a place in the conversation that made sense for them and for the overall discussion. Nobody talked about it and no formal decision was made — it just happened automatically, and fairly quickly. The process had only just started — the conference was only two days, after all — but I imagine if we’d kept going roles would have become even better defined, with even better results for anyone following along.

It was interesting to watch that unfold, and to think about how it might shape news coverage. It reminded me of a chapter from Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control,” which you can read here — what we were doing was a somewhat differentiated version of flocking. The mathematics of flocking and the way individual decisions can collectively create order from chaos feel very strange, even deeply counterintuitive. But such collective efforts work surprisingly well, whether the test is an audience at a conference “deciding” to do a 360 in a virtual plane or a bunch of people chronicling something 140 characters at a time.

Tweets From the Crescent City

Posted in Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 6, 2009

Am part of a lively gang of Twitterers at the Editor and Publisher/Mediaweek conference. We’re on lunch break now, but you can follow along at #IMConf, or here.

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New Orleans, Revisited

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on May 4, 2009

Tomorrow I’m headed to New Orleans for E&P’s annual conference and show,  from which I’ll blog as I’m able and as events warrant.

If you’ll forgive a navel-gazing detour, though, this trip to New Orleans will be rather evocative personally. You see, I got my start in journalism as a 20-year-old summer intern for the Times-Picayune in 1989, and it’s amusing and a bit embarrassing to recall just what a rich shade of green I was.

I arrived with nowhere to live and only a vague awareness that I would need to find a place to do that — my solution was to get a copy of the classifieds and tramp concentric circles around the French Quarter looking at the very cheapest listings. As everybody but me could have figured out, this led to some illuminating adventures in real estate. On Day Two of this odyssey, I wound up ascending the shaky stairs of an apartment building on Iberville behind an improbably squat, massive woman who was wearing a muumuu whose colors had leached out around 1979 and smoking an enormous cigar. If memory serves (I was a little shell-shocked by then), the room she showed me was spectacularly squalid, one of several off an even more squalid hallway with a common bathroom. As she made halfhearted representations about the selling points of the room in her broken-glass-and-gravel rumble, the other doors on the hall opened one by one, Whack-a-Mole style, and the faces of young men appeared for a split-second before disappearing again. “Rent’s due in cash first of the month, no exceptions,” she said, then whirled around with her cigar trailing an arc of smoke, to bark “BECAUSE MOST OF WHAT WE GET AROUND HERE IS STRIPPERS AND QUEENS, AND THEY DON’T PAY!” At which point all the doors shut and it became extremely quiet. I decided this wasn’t quite what I was looking for and wound up (through typical dumb luck) subletting a beautiful, furnished railroad apartment on Esplanade from a Times-Picayune reporter who was away for the summer, but part of me wishes I’d taken the Iberville room. I certainly would have had plenty to write about.

I missed out on the Iberville life, but that summer I started to learn my craft from some awfully good and amazingly patient people. Jim Amoss kindly gave me a chance and then remained friendly and supportive while I repaid him with the kind of gaffes that 20-year-olds don’t register at the time but their older selves remember wth horror. Kris Gilger was the first editor every kid reporter should have — she was ferocious and exacting and I was scared to death of her, but she was also a fearless advocate for her reporters, no matter how wet behind the ears they were. Jed Horne would sit me down daily and quietly but firmly poke holes in my story and help me fill in the frustrating gaps between what I’d written and what I’d been trying to say. They, and many others in that newsroom, helped me find myself as a reporter and a writer and as a person. They were tough when it was called for, and endlessly encouraging, and kind to my mistakes.

Leaving New Orleans in the fall of 1989, I assumed I’d be back for a career there, following the obvious progression from youthful writer of long, deeply moving features to whiz-bang young novelist to learned gray sage. That never happened, for various reasons, though I did return for a second summer as an intern, and I did get to write some of those features. OK, at least they were long — I’m not sure about the “deeply moving” part.

I’d never imagined that I’d wind up in Washington, D.C. working for trade publication specializing in indoor air quality, of all things. The subject was about as exciting as I’d expected, but it was invaluable experience — I wrote more than 20 stories a week sometimes, learned the basics of laying out a paper and always had to think of what we did as a business. I had no inkling that from there I’d wind up in New York City, rewriting skeletal wire copy about something called mortgage-backed securities for an online experiment started by the Wall Street Journal. (In 1989 I doubt I’d even heard of the Internet.) I had not the faintest idea that my WSJ.com stint would turn into 13 years of being a reporter and an editor and a manager and a projects guy, that I’d get to write a weekly column about technology and a daily one about sportswriting, and that I’d be given an education by way of never-ending experiment in making a newspaper work in the online world. I didn’t dream that being a New York Mets fan could lead to blogging about that team for a surprisingly large audience that would become a cherished community. Nor could I have imagined that I’d find my way to EidosMedia, where I’d work with world-class technology to produce newspapers for a new era and help editors at those newspapers work more efficiently to meet that era’s challenges and find its opportunities.

My 20-year-old self would have found that career path bizarre, but then it’s a rare 20-year-old who understands that most career paths will have plenty of unexpected loops and turns.

Anyway, it all began in New Orleans in 1989. Now, in New Orleans in 2009, I’ll be eager to get some clues about where this industry is going. But I’ll also, inevitably, be thinking back to how I began, in that same place, literally half my lifetime ago.

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