Some quick reads on a simmering summer Tuesday afternoon:
At Nieman Journalism Lab, Martin Langeveld goes on an interesting journey in response to a question: If he were starting a news organization, what would he focus on first? Design? Community? Personality? The question strikes Langeveld as a good way for existing news organizations to reinvent themselves, but then he runs into a problem: The eroding business model of today and the unformed business model of the future are so different that news organizations may not be able to get from Point A to Point B. Or at least not without “a major restructuring event.” A strategic bankruptcy, in other words. (This isn’t just a cultural problem — the potential new business models for journalism seem like poor bets to support the legacy debt load incurred by a number of publishers.)
It’s a sobering thought. The first impulse is to shrink from it. The second impulse is to mourn that journalism’s current problems have reached the point where bankruptcy looks like a way forward. But neither denial nor mourning are particularly effective responses to what’s happening to the industry right now.
In Advertising Age, Michael Learmonth ponders an irony: The ill-fated merger of Time Warner and America Online was supposed to create a digital-publishing titan, with AOL’s reach leveraging Time Warner’s content. Nearly a decade later, AOL is indeed using its traffic to help create successful publishing ventures, only Time Warner content isn’t part of the equation — rather, AOL is creating lean, efficient niche sites. Those sites might have seemed like trivial ventures amid the ambitions of a decade ago, but in stripped-down media era they’re successes to consider.
Clay Shirky posts the graduation speech delivered by Nicholas Lemann last week at Columbia Journalism School. It’s an interesting analysis of journalism moving beyond the vaguely feudal model of papers owned by dynastic families as public trusts. What really jumped out at me, though, was Lemann’s insistence that to find new forms of journalism, journalistic institutions need to broaden the conversation about how journalism is practiced. What were internal arguments within the “family circle” have to now include the voices of readers. I’ve argued this myself, pointing out that the spread of social media is changing expectations about what we share about ourselves and know about each other. In that world, the cloistered model of journalism will no longer meet readers’ expectations — and the best way to find a model that will is by listening to those same readers.
When I started with Twitter, I had no idea what I was supposed to get from it or do to contribute to it. So I just played with it, trying out various kinds of tweets and looking for folks to follow from my schizoid professional and personal pursuits. Twitter veterans can already guess what happened next: I discovered that by accident, I’d built myself a highly targeted, utterly idiosyncratic news feed staffed by people I trust. Digital Journalism + New York Mets/Baseball + Star Wars + Brooklyn + Whatever’s Big Enough News to Engage Everybody From Those Camps = Me. There was the day I realized I was increasingly learning things not from my rounds of various Web sites but from Twitter, and then there was the day that I reflexively turned to Twitter to find out what was going on.
So I’m the target audience for Robert Niles’s thoughts on the lessons Michael Jackson’s death offers online journalists. As always, Niles is thoughtful and offers excellent advice — about 75% of which I agree with.
Niles’s advice that news organizations use Twitter to acknowledge widespread rumors and quickly say what they’re up to is dead-on, for instance. This is a perfect example of the kind of transparency that readers increasingly demand, and that makes papers paranoid because it seems to run counter to the “batch” culture of newsgathering that evolved to serve print. But while it’s a cultural shift, it’s not one to fear. By acknowledging rumors once they reach a certain pitch, newspapers not only stay relevant, but also fulfill their core mission of informing readers — for instance, the word of a newspaper that’s acknowledged a rumor would carry more weight in knocking it down later.
I also completely agree with the suggestion (passed along from Steve Buttry) that newspapers stop calling email blasts “news alerts.” Social-media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook spread breaking news much more quickly and efficiently than email does. And as a digital-newsroom veteran, I know all too well that email alerts are untrustworthy beasts that have to jump through too many hoops on their journey between the editor and the reader. Emails have a nasty habit of getting hung up on the way out of the news organization’s systems and/or on the way into the reader’s corporate system or ISP. When the email shows up late, readers blame the news organization, not their ISP or corporate email filter. And lots of readers overestimate their appetite for emailed news, meaning email alerts quickly stop being signal and become inbox noise.
That said, I differ with Niles on two relatively minor points.
First, I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that breaking news should be divided into a reporting task and a publishing task. For one thing, good editing-and-publishing systems make it easy to tweet something or put up an SMS from within a single story with minimal interruption to the reporting and writing process. (Or, if you’ll pardon the plug, at least EidosMedia’s does.) More fundamentally, newsrooms and individual journalists are different. I’ve known journalists who could fire off an SMS or post a breaking-news summary without missing a beat, because that was just a part of their tracking and developing the story in their heads. The last thing such journalists want is to interrupt this flow by consulting, however briefly, with a colleague on a tweet. Yet I’ve also known journalists who’d dive so deeply into banging out the first dozen iterations of a breaking news story that switching gears to “publisher” mode would be somewhere between intolerable and impossible. For them, Niles’s advice is perfect.
My other point of departure with Niles is his advice to drop email as a breaking-news mechanism. Neither he nor I want to get breaking news that way, but not everybody is enamored of Twitter or checking their Facebook feed religiously. I suspect most or all papers have many readers that like email as an interruptive mechanism for bringing them news that’s truly important, and those readers have to be served too.
If I were running a newsroom right now, I would rebrand our email “alerts” with a more neutral term to acknowledge that a tech-savvy portion of the audience has moved on to other communications methods, and to guard against poorly behaved servers and filters. I’d clearly explain to readers all the ways they can get news from us and what we use each method for, and I’d make sure readers could easily change their preferences whenever they wished. But I’d keep email as an arrow in the quiver, even for breaking news.
As is so often true with online news, the answer isn’t so much that one technology displaces another as it is that you find yourself having to use both.
Addendum: If you’ll excuse a Friday afternoon digression, this is how I realized my six-year-old son was playing Little League baseball in a rather extraordinary place. I wouldn’t have guessed that the story of a crowded little park with artificial turf dated back 310 years and included the American Revolution and the formative years of Major League Baseball, but that’s why it pays to be curious.
I have great respect for Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, but his post examining the transition in Ann Arbor seems backwards to me, given the state of the newspaper industry and the digital adaptation it’s trying to make. The headline of Edmonds’ post is “Why Ann Arbor Will be the First City to Lose its Only Daily Newspaper,” and the language is correspondingly dour throughout: “lose,” “dubious distinction,” “its own demise,” and so forth.
But Ann Arbor is only losing its daily paper from a print-centric point of view. The paper is going to a Web-first model, with print papers on Thursday and Sunday, and it’s ditching the wretched MLive cookie-cutter Web experience for its own site, AnnArbor.com.
Edmonds notes the Ann Arbor market is young, prosperous, wired and literate, and begins by expressing surprise that a town like that can’t appreciate and support a print paper. He then explores why “some of those apparent strengths seem instead to have proven drawbacks” for a print daily.
The same column could have been written as an exploration of why Ann Arbor might be one of the best cities for an aggressive move to a Web-first strategy, thanks to its young, prosperous, wired audience, and looked at how AnnArbor.com realized print isn’t the best fit for its community and the shackles of a one-size-fits-all Web template had to be shed. From that point of view, Edmonds might have written of Ann Arbor that “some of those apparent drawbacks could instead prove strengths” for a Web-first paper. (He’s promised a follow-up about AnnArbor.com, which is great, but the tone has been set.)
As with the Seattle P-I, what’s happening in Ann Arbor isn’t anything to celebrate: The staff of the News is being dismissed and given a chance to audition for a smaller set of jobs that pay less. But that grim situation isn’t unique to Ann Arbor, and to blame the Web transition for it (which, to be clear, Edmonds doesn’t do) would be muddled causality. Ann Arbor’s strategy seems sound, and portraying it as the loss of a print daily strikes me as needlessly retrograde. The daily print paper is indeed going away; the daily journalism, one hopes, is not.
NYU Local founder (and Outside.in intern) Cody Brown offers a very interesting dissection of print and online journalism from a different point of view, one that raises all sorts of intriguing questions while sidestepping a lot of unproductive debates. Brown is interested in the very different processes by which print and online journalism are produced, and how those processes shape a news organization’s brand. Basically (and you can check for yourself to see if my gloss of his argument misinterprets or oversimplifies anything), he calls print a batch process in which chunks of information are turned into carefully written, rigorously fact-checked output, while calling online a real-time process in which stories are processed on the fly by many contributors, evolving (sometimes in messy ways) as more and more information emerges. The print process creates stories that are the famous “first draft of history,” while the online process creates information that’s so mutable that calling it a first draft of anything seems like a misunderstanding of the model.
To me, Brown’s key insight is that in a print/batch model, the messy process of newsgathering is hidden away, and newspapers (he uses the New York Times as his example) can present their stories as authoritative, aspiring to be the “voice of God.” The online/real-time model necessarily lays the newsgathering process bare, with its occasional false starts and missteps and backtracking and changes in emphasis out there for anybody to see. That undermines the idea of stories being authoritative and reveals the paper as a voice that’s all too human. In Brown’s view, that’s a huge and potentially fatal brand problem for a paper like the Times.
It’s a perspective that unlocks something I agree is at the heart of a lot of papers’ problems in adapting to the online world. That said, I don’t think things are as black and white as Brown portrays them. The challenge for the Times isn’t to go from a batch process to a real-time process, but for the Times to do both while keeping the two processes from entangling each other. That’s still an enormous challenge, but it shouldn’t be an existential one.
Not every reader is served by the real-time process of online newsgathering; some want the authority of batch-processed journalism. But this isn’t just about different segments of an audience. It also should be noted that the same process won’t serve the same reader all the time. For example, I’ve avidly followed details of the new iPhone and the latest news from Iran in real time, and been less interested in the day-old stories about them that were produced through batch processing, no matter how well-crafted and authoritative those stories were. But when it came to the overhaul of the Fed, I wanted to read a “finished” story, and had no interest in following events in real time. As one of Brown’s commentors noted, the Times has pursued both courses in covering Iran, with snippets of news coming into The Lede alongside more traditional takes that have evolved into print stories. As is so often the case in digital-age journalism, papers will have to do both to meet the demands of audience segments that want different things.
Despite such reservations, I think Brown’s key insight is enormously valuable, and a great starting point for papers to think about the challenges they face. A lot of papers have gotten their batch and real-time processes hopelessly entangled and let themselves be distracted by arguments about which process is “better” or which is “real” journalism. Those papers need to put aside such cultural distractions and focus on the way forward. To me, the way forward is to bring high journalistic standards to the real-time process, while understanding that isn’t the same as simply applying batch-process standards. Rather, the discussion should begin by saying “this is how the real-time process works — what standards should our organization apply within it?”
Brown is absolutely right that the real-time process is far more transparent, but I don’t see that it needs to be injurious to the Times’s brand. Within the bounds of responsibility — keeping internal disputes private, protecting sources, not disclosing off-the-record material — I think a more-transparent newsgathering process would make most readers think more highly of their paper, not less. It’s true that the New York Times would no longer be the “voice of God,” as Brown puts it, and that would indeed be a big cultural change. But being the voice of the New York Times would still be pretty good.
Last night I was watching a desultory Mets-Orioles game (ah, the magic of interleague play) and SNY ran a promo for Geico SportsNite, their sports-news show. Their big teaser: Another sports figure has been caught for steroids! Who? Tune in after the game to find out!
It’s not a new message: One night a while back SportsNite’s breathless tease was that I’d never guess where Plaxico Burress wanted to play now.
But I didn’t have to guess. If I had any curiosity about where Plaxico Burress wanted to play football (and hopefully not shoot himself in the thigh), I could have picked myself off the couch, walked over to my laptop, and typed a bit. Or, if that were too taxing, I could have reached over to pick up my iPhone. Ditto for that latest sports figure busted for steroids. (It was Sammy Sosa, something I’d known for at least 10 hours.)
Today news flows instantly to the Web and is passed along person-to-person through Facebook and Twitter and shared links and email and IM and SMS. The Web is a constant companion in offices, where employees’ screens can be used for personal matters — email, shopping and checking sports news — as well as actual work. (Lest employers bristle at that, the flip side of that is work now follows employees into their cars, homes and even onto airplanes. Fair’s fair.) Anyone interested in the carnage of performance-enhancing drugs or Plaxico Burress’s career prospects doesn’t have to wait for SportsCenter or Geico SportsNite or a chance to tune in to talk radio. They know already. Geico SportsNite’s model has been discarded and is thoroughly irrelevant.
SNY may think this doesn’t matter — Mets fans will want to see highlights again (particularly if the Mets have won, as they sometimes do) and Geico SportsNite fits the comforting rhythms of the sports fan’s evening: pre-game show, game, post-game show, sports news. And I’m sure that’s true for some viewers. But I’m also sure that those viewers are aging, and not being replaced by younger viewers. 2009’s sports fans aren’t going to wait around for TV news and highlights any more than 1989’s sports fans would have waited for tomorrow’s sports section instead of watching that night’s SportsCenter.
This is essentially the same zombie path still trudged by some newspapers, and the solution is the same: Stop! Throw out the old model that was crafted before the rise of the consumer Web, and invent a sports-news show from today’s starting point.
What would that starting point be? Really, it’s twofold:
- Our viewers watched the Mets game. They know what happened.
- Our viewers are familiar with any big sports story that broke before first pitch.
That doesn’t mean the Mets game should be ignored — SNY is the Mets’ TV network, after all. It doesn’t mean Sammy Sosa doesn’t get discussed. Far from it. But it does call for the equivalent of a second-day story — the briefest of recaps (with plugs for up-t0-the-minute news on SNY’s Web site), followed by a deeper dive into the significance of that news.
Instead of putting together a highlights reel of the Mets game, get SNY’s analysts and former Mets players to focus on a key performance, play, at-bat or managerial move. Explain to viewers why it was crucial, or give a player’s perspective that fans can’t have. Look ahead to tomorrow night’s game, arming viewers with a scouting report of the next day’s pitcher, the incoming team, and key matchups. Offer some historical parallels between the Mets’ season so far and previous seasons, or between a young player and how noted Mets of the past were performing at that point in their careers. Give viewers something they don’t know, in other words. Then do the same for Sosa, or Burress, or the other big stories. Analyze and either look forward or back.
Will the old way still work? Sure — for an audience that’s exiting, dwindling daily and becoming less relevant and valuable. Better to focus on the audience that’s arriving.
Over in Advertising Age, Simon Dumenco is irritated that Syracuse University’s j-school is going to give Arianna Huffington a lifetime-achievement award. The reason? The Huffington Post doesn’t pay its bloggers — and if its co-founder Ken Lerer sticks to his guns, it apparently doesn’t intend to ever do so. Dumenco is still steaming about this rather blunt quote Lerer gave USA Today in late 2007 when asked about compensation: “That’s not our financial model. We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company.” In fact, Dumenco is now more livid, since he thinks the Huffington Post is now beyond break-even and making money.
It’s pretty easy to get me worked up about most anything, but I’m having trouble joining Dumenco at the barricades on this one: His is a “what should happen” argument, one that strikes me as based on civic principles rather than economic ones.
The idea that journalists are now brands is an old one on this blog — heck, it’s a category — and the dark side of that is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Earlier this spring, I spent two days at McGraw-Hill’s Media Summit, and one of the most interesting speakers was Smokey Fontaine, a veteran of the magazine world who’s now Interactive One’s chief content officer. Fontaine talked about having come to the online world expecting that compensation for online content would be a small slice of compensation in the magazine world, only to discover that in fact, that compensation was … nothing. In the new online order, he said, journalists were brands. So were online publishers — and what the little brands got was a chance to piggyback on the bigger ones.
“It’s a distribution deal for journalists,” he said, then added: “We are all freelancers now.”
A few weeks ago, I was down in Florida at the Poynter Institute, talking to a room full of young sportswriters about blogs. One of the questions I addressed was why a young, ambitious reporter should serve an apprenticeship covering high-school sports (or night cops, or whatever) when he or she could have a blog up and running in minutes, expounding on anything desired before a potentially global audience. The Internet really is the world’s greatest talent show, so why not sign up for it instead of trying to climb an industry ladder that seems to have more and more broken rungs?
By way of an answer, I used the New York Mets blog I co-write with my friend Greg Prince as a cautionary tale. A typical month’s traffic on Faith and Fear in Flushing is around 200,000 page views for more than 60,000 distinct hosts. We’re not the Huffington Post, but by most measures we’re a pretty big blog. We started Faith and Fear while I was still a columnist at the Wall Street Journal Online, and one of the ground rules for that arrangement was that we wouldn’t try to monetize the blog. With those ground rules no longer applicable, Greg and I probably will put ads on the blog sometime this year. But our dreams are pitifully modest — to be able to cover our server costs and stop running Faith and Fear as a charity.
Financially, Faith and Fear has been a sinkhole — Greg and I have no chance of being able to be full-time bloggers, even though most bloggers would kill for our numbers. But that’s an awfully narrow way of measuring its success. During our first year of writing for Faith and Fear, Greg and I appeared on SNY, the Mets’ TV network, and became sources for Mets writers — and Greg got a book deal for his memoirs of life as a particularly intense fan.
Faith and Fear has been a lousy money-maker, but it’s been a terrific billboard for Greg and me as writers. Our writing on the blog hasn’t directly paid us one thin dime, but it has created other opportunities — and some of those opportunities have come with chances to make money. Albeit on a different scale, it’s the same deal the Huffington Post offers its bloggers: Distribution that could lead to contribution.
Accepting this isn’t the same as liking it: Smokey Fontaine didn’t seem particularly happy about his analysis, and the reception to the Media Summit panel ran the gamut from sullen to stricken. Life under the distribution-drives-compensation model forces journalists to be brands, to get good at selling, to become hawkers of themselves as wares, and a lot of us rebel against the idea.
But Arianna Huffington didn’t create that model any more than Smokey Fontaine or a lot of unpaid bloggers like me and Greg did. Rather, the Internet revolutionized the distribution of journalism, which created a huge boom in its supply, which in turn gave a big advantage to the most-powerful distributors. Arianna Huffington may not deserve an award for having exploited that particularly well, but I fail to see why she deserves condemnation.