Reinventing the Newsroom

Howard Stern Meets ‘The Plant’

Posted in Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on August 28, 2009

Jeff Jarvis has an interesting post (amplifying this Daily News feature by David Hinckley) talking about the future of Howard Stern once his Sirius contract expires. Talking with Hinckley, folks in the radio trades bounce around the idea (among others) that Stern could start his own radio station on the Internet, giving him total freedom and the chance to keep a lot of the money he’d otherwise give away to whomever distributes him. It’s a possibility that Jarvis further explores through some back-of-the-envelope calculations: Extrapolating from measurements of his impact on satellite radio, Jarvis suggests that if Stern charged just $1 a month, he could bring in at least $42 million a month, with no need for a distribution network or marketing, minus the costs of staff and bandwidth. So why not?

The opportunities afforded by digital distribution are absolutely real, of course, as a planet full of bloggers and an industry full of very worried newspaper owners can tell you. And there are reasons to think Stern might actually try this — Jarvis notes that he’s a control freak, and the people Hinckley talk to note that he’s become more interested in freedom than whatever relevance he might lose.

But there are reasons to think he won’t, too.

The idea of some artist going digital and doing away with the traditional middlemen and their distribution networks is an enticing one, a development that’s imagined as a singular event that would encourage innumerable other content creators’ efforts to bypass publishers and record labels and radio networks and go it alone, too. But we’ve been waiting for years for a superstar to do this, and by now I’m not sure that singular event will ever occur — or that it will matter when it finally does.

One reason it hasn’t happened begins with the fact that the artists who are big enough to provide that singular event are the ones who need it least — they’re already big names being served pretty well, all things considered, by the traditional ways of doing things. And because of that, such artists have enormous bargaining power: It’s in the interests of the middlemen who would be eliminated to pay them handsomely to stay the course.

Stephen King could go it alone — and in fact he experimented with that back in 2000, releasing his novel “The Plant” in pieces on his own Web site. But King hasn’t gone it alone — he’s exceptionally well-paid by Simon & Schuster. (And “The Plant” remains unfinished.)

After the end of their contract with EMI, Radiohead released “In Rainbows” as a digital download through the band’s own Web site in late 2007. Talking to Time magazine about the move, lead singer Thom Yorke said that “I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘F— you’ to this decaying business model.” That prompted a soon-to-be-famous quote from an A&R guy at a European label: “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.” But Radiohead didn’t make a clean break with that decaying business model: The CD of “In Rainbows” was released through a number of traditional record labels.

I’m sure Radiohead did very well in those deals, just as I’m sure I’d like to get Stephen King’s advances. Could J.K. Rowling distribute her own e-books and print-on-demand novels? Undoubtedly — just as, say, Bruce Springsteen could go it alone with digital downloads. But some established middleman will pay Rowling or Springsteen enormously well not to do that — just as I’m sure some terrestrial radio station will soon offer to write Stern a very large check.

And there’s another factor here: King, Rowling and Springsteen would probably rather spend their time writing books and music than managing a whole bunch of people and worrying (directly or indirectly) about servers and e-commerce. Granted, artists at that level are already semi-corporations, employing a number of people. But going it alone would make their staffs that much bigger and their management headaches that much larger.

Stern’s desire for control and freedom may make him an exception. But what’s more likely to happen, I think, is that artists further down the food chain will be the ones to go it alone. Back in 2005, I wrote about an experiment by the band Harvey Danger (which had one big hit, 1998’s “Flagpole Sitta”) that was very much like Radiohead’s. Harvey Danger had no label and didn’t particularly want one — they saw themselves as big enough to be able to connect with fans on their own and make a decent living touring and selling CDs. But note that their ambitions were comparatively small — and while they were no Radiohead, they still had the kind of name recognition most bands would kill for.

This isn’t to argue against digital distribution’s ability to level playing fields and offer alternatives. There are plenty of artists that could follow Harvey Danger’s lead — as there will be artists that bootstrap themselves from unknowns to next big things with a go-it-alone, digital-only strategy. (Bands like Fall Out Boy and writers like Christopher Paolini have already done that, in fact.) Eventually, I’m sure, one such artist will reject the big deal offered by a label or a publisher, and keep riding DIY distribution to superstardom. But it won’t be an established superstar. And because of that, we won’t ever have that singular event. Which, ultimately, won’t matter — the world will change anyway.

I’ll be on vacation until Tuesday, Sept. 8, so apologies if posts are sparse.

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Paul Farhi Ducks the Question

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 26, 2009

This is from a (generally Redskins-themed) Washington Post chat with Paul Farhi, about his recent American Journalism Review article calling on newspapers to save themselves by building high pay walls around Web content, or discontinuing it completely:

Re: Bloggers: Why aren’t bloggers more interested in helping newspapers make a go of it on-line? If we lose the big newspapers, what will they aggregate and/or comment on? I mean, CakeWrecks will probably still be in business, but anyone whose subject is current events will suffer greatly with no original material to work with.

Paul Farhi: I generally agree with you, although sadly, newspapers have cut back so much that they are providing less and less original material all the time. I can’t imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don’t really care about any of that. They’re mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they’re getting their basic facts.

This is really disappointing. As I wrote last week, I thought Farhi’s AJR article was myopic about the long-term future of the newspaper industry and curiously blind about Web journalism, a combination that made it bad advice.  But I also thought it was honestly argued, not skating over the industry’s woes or bogging down in pointless Web/print cultural jihads.

If the questioner read Farhi’s AJR piece he didn’t understand it, but Farhi turns an irrelevant question into an opportunity to offer the kind of smug generalization one would expect from, say, the reader representative of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

This blogger cares deeply about newspapers and desperately wants them to stay around. That’s why Reinventing the Newsroom exists — in hopes that it might play some small role in helping papers adapt to the Web, pursue digital experiments, and find answers that work. It’s what my employer, EidosMedia, does every day in trying to create and refine editing-and-publishing software that turns the challenges of simultaneously publishing for the Web and print into opportunities. It’s what innumerable other journalists-turned-bloggers and companies and experimental Web sites and even established newspapers are trying to do, too.

I can imagine a world (or an Internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day — and the reason I objected so vociferously to Farhi’s AJR article was that I think his advice would make that world arrive much more quickly.

To reiterate my objections, retreating from the Web would not bring back many of the sources of revenue lost by print papers — that money hasn’t gone to online newspapers, but to other Web sites, and it’s not coming back. It’s highly unlikely a retreat from the Web would spur a return to print by online consumers of news, because an ever-increasing number of those online consumers never read print in the first place. Farhi rightly points out the perilous uncertainties of the Web business model, but ignores the even-more perilous certainties of the print business model, with its vanishing revenue streams and dwindling numbers of aged subscribers. His advice for newspapers amounts to short-term wisdom but long-term folly, and to my mind his unconventional wisdom is really a blueprint for surrender.

Whether we like it or not, print newspapers are becoming a niche product. The way to ensure newspapers are more than niche products in the future is to find Web-first business models that will work, ones that will preserve newspapers’ considerable strengths while shedding parts of its print legacy that are online weaknesses. By all means, let’s argue about the best way to do that. But broad-brush attacks on Ol’ Devil Bloggers are a pointless distraction from the real argument and the real work to be done.

Does Long-Form Journalism Work Online?

Posted in Long-Form Journalism, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on August 25, 2009

No, says Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, telling Beet.tv in this short video interview that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.”

Yes, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, telling Times readers that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”

The two very different answers were noted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. So which is it?

I’m sure both men are correct. But then they’re serving very different audiences.

Tyrangiel says Time.com’s goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time,” and his portrait of a Web reader is someone at work between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., looking for the news with lunch on the desk, the boss at the door and the voice-mail light blinking on the phone.

Tyrangiel is obviously zeroed in on serving that reader, as he should be, which makes his statements sound a touch absolutist. For that kind of  reader, of course longer-form stories like the ones in the print version of Time aren’t going to do well. But this isn’t the only kind of reader, and the same reader may act differently in the middle of the workday than he or she does at other times. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and unlike Time.com, the Times magazine isn’t radically different online than it is in print. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to know what they’re getting, and to want and even expect stories they can engage with over a longer period of time.

So — as is so often the case on the Web — the answer is that different parts of the audience want different things, and a publisher may well wind up having to serve everybody.

This is a pretty brief post so far; were I to heed Tyrangiel’s warning, I’d quit right here. But having a weakness for goat-chokers myself, I’ll add a couple of caveats.

First off, I suspect the real question about long-form journalism isn’t whether it works online or not, but to ask how often it works at all. This isn’t to dismiss the form, but to note simply (if a bit cynically) that many more people will read a lousy 4oo-word story than a lousy 4,000-word one.

The best long-form journalism kills in any medium — witness this Tommy Craggs takedown of Luddite baseball announcer Joe Morgan, this Michael Lewis look back at the financial meltdown, or this Nick Kristof and Sarah WuDunn cri de coeur about women’s rights, from last week’s Times magazine. (I read it online, by the way.) But the best long-form journalism is very hard to do, and correspondingly rare.

On the other hand, it’s also very valuable. Good long-form journalism offers online publications a crucial competitive advantage: It’s very hard or impossible to copy. In a world awash in commoditized news, this is a big selling point, which is one reason I have faith that long-form journalism will be more important to Web publishers a couple of years from now than it is today.

But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and it will always be risky. Tyrangiel is absolutely right to observe that “online, you can be anywhere, anytime” — let the reader’s attention wander and they’re off somewhere else, never to return. And the reader has to know what he or she is getting into.

Therein lies a cautionary tale. Years ago (as the story was told to me), a reporter was sitting in the airport and realized a man sitting nearby had started reading the reporter’s very ambitious, in-depth front-page story. The reporter leaned in unobserved, and watched in fascination as the man took in each paragraph on the front page. The reader was enthralled, he realized — he sat bolt upright and even began saying things like “wow” under his breath. Turn to the jump, the reporter thought. Don’t read the rest of the front page. Turn to the jump.

To the reporter’s delight, the man did just that — only to be confronted by the rest of the story, which took up a full double-truck. He looked paralyzed for a moment, exclaimed “Oh, shit!” — and closed the paper. Want to see the same effect online? Watch what happens when an unwary reader scrolls to the bottom of a first screen and sees 2 3 4 5 6 7 all hyperlinked.

Searching for Context

Posted in Creating Context, The Journalist as Brand by reinventingthenewsroom on August 24, 2009

Over at Poynter, Matt Thompson has some interesting thoughts (slightly changed from an earlier appearance at Newsless.org) about the traditional news story and how it fails readers. Thompson argues, using the current health-care furor as his example, that a news story has four key parts: what just happened; the longstanding facts; how journalists know what they know; and the things we don’t know. Unfortunately, most stories appearing in the paper leave out the last three key parts, or stuff the longstanding facts into a single paragraph low in the story. All we get is the wildly spinning weather vane of what just happened.

It’s an approach that touches a lot of issues bubbling beneath the surface. From the perspective Thompson explores, for instance, you can easily see why speechifying and trial balloons and endless spin are so effective: With the underlying story rarely explored, different sides of an issue only have to win the day’s news cycle and keep the weather vane spinning.

So what are Thompson’s proposed solutions? For the question of how we know what we know, he offers up this excellent Atul Gawande story about health care from the New Yorker. Gawande, he notes, structures his story as a quest narrative: He begins the story looking for answers, and lets us follow along with him as he tries to find those answers from Texas doctors and health-care experts. It’s indeed a winning form, for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s transparent. Gawande doesn’t begin claiming to be an expert but gradually reveals his expertise and experiences — he’s a medical doctor himself, and he shares a frightening anecdote about an injury to his infant son that’s not entirely to his credit. The quest narrative also makes us root for him — we want to find out the answers too, so when Gawande runs across a plain-talking cardiac surgeon who helps make things clearer, we share his satisfaction. (On the subject of tackling what we don’t know, Thompson passes along a very fine explainer from Politifact, which neatly lays out what’s yet to be decided in the health-care debate.)

It’s an interesting discussion; my question is how newspapers can put some of the potential answers into practice. Background explainers, topic pages and the like are becoming increasingly common in newspapers, and when they’re done well — which is to say, written and curated by an actual human being — they can be quite effective. The New York Times is particularly good at this — here’s the Times’s topic page on health-care reform. I rarely run across good, clear-eyed explainers about what isn’t known, like the Politifact article, and agree they’d be terrific additions to news coverage. (Martin Langeveld has explored similar territory in calling for a “content cascade” of news.)

But how do we integrate these things with the ephemeral news of the day? In my early days at WSJ.com, I specialized in rewrites of breaking news to add context drawn from the Journal archives — an attempt to address the problem Thompson explores. (Or at least part of it.) But I’m not sure how successful my lovingly detailed rewrites were — they tended to turn every story into a wannabe goat-choker. The Times’s topic page is quite good, but just try and reach it from this health-care story. (Go on. I double-dog dare you.) Topic pages, explainers, wikis and content cascades are excellent tools that could put ephemeral news stories into a larger context, but they won’t work if they’re afterthoughts in the presentation of a story, only reached by the lucky few who find the correct link in a sea of blue type. For me, the key point here is the need to experiment with new ways to use basic news stories to drive readers to the larger narratives that give them more-useful information.

And, of course, not every news story can be a quest narrative: Gawande’s Texas adventures are compelling, but your City Council reporter doesn’t have the time or space for a quest narrative, and readers would probably want to kill him if he tried it. I think the lesson here is to let reporters and writers be real people. Let readers see them through video and hear them through podcasts. Have them interact with readers through discussions and social media. Get them to offer further expertise and background through beatblogging. Be transparent and real, and perhaps their larger beats can become quest narratives, with the reader along for the ride.

Paul Farhi’s Very Strange Advice

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 20, 2009

(Greetings Romenesko folk — my latest blog post is a reaction to Matt Thompson’s thoughts on the failings of the traditional news story. And the blog’s main page is here. Thanks for stopping by!)

I’m a fan of Paul Farhi’s — he’s a terrific writer and rarely gets snagged in the brambles of conventional wisdom. But I found his prescription for newspapers in the American Journalism Review at first baffling and then profoundly depressing. It’s a proposed course of action that sounds bold but is fundamentally a surrender — a suggestion that we go as gently as possible into that good night.

Farhi’s advice is that downplaying or dropping the Web entirely would be smart and potentially life-saving for the newspaper industry. Going print-only, he thinks, would eliminate the glut of commoditized Web news, put aggregators out of business and let newspapers avoid the pitiless and unproven economics of Web advertising.

It requires mental gymnastics worthy of Nadia Comaneci to accept the premise that newspapers could act in concert to turn off their Web servers. It takes a pretty profound suspension of disbelief to think that doing so would truly choke off other sources of news to which online readers would turn. (Would local TV news outlets also pull the plug on their Web operations? Would CNN and FoxNews?) But for a moment, let’s grant that these things could happen. Would the “massive migration back to print” that Farhi hopes for really follow?

I have my doubts, to put it mildly. Farhi himself notes that classifieds have dried up “like a desert lake,” hammering newspaper revenue, and that circulation declined 13.1% between 1999 and 2008. Yet eliminating online news wouldn’t bring classifieds back into print newspapers — they’d stay on Craigslist. Nor would job listings return to print papers — they’d stay on Monster.com. Those sources of revenues haven’t gone to the online side of the news house — they’ve left the house entirely. Car dealers and furniture stores wouldn’t shut down their Web outposts, or stop trying to reach online audiences directly. The essential problem with Farhi’s fantasy is that turning off the Web-news spigot would not restore newspapers’ historic, geographically based monopolies and their lost status as a key conduit by which businesses reached customers. Even playing by his odd house rules, most of the money that’s been lost wouldn’t return.

Nor, I suspect, would the readers. Newspaper circulation had been dwindling for some time when the Internet was still the province of scientists and academics. Yes, print readers are a loyal bunch. They’re also, on average, 55 years old. Younger generations, meanwhile, are no longer following the once-well-trodden path of settling down, raising a family and becoming civic-minded enough to start getting the paper — instead, they’re sticking with their youthful habits of grazing for news online. Farhi suggests these Web-reared readers would return to print, but there’s no return involved — they weren’t reading print in the first place. The problem would be the same: Print subscribers dying and not being replaced.

Meanwhile, on the Web side of the house Farhi hears birth pangs and calls them death throes.

Yes, online newspapers face significant challenges. Most newspapers still run their businesses as if the physics of geography and physical distribution protect them from competition, which is what has led to the glut of commoditized news that Farhi notes. (Again, how many movie critics do we really need?) Online, measures of advertising’s effectiveness are based on numbers rather than faith, and that has indeed made Web advertising much less rewarding than print. It’s far from certain that most newspapers will be able to pay the bills through subscriptions, donations or micropayments. All granted.

But online news is still very, very new — and still struggling to disengage itself from print models and print frameworks. It seems unlikely that Web-first newspapers will ever be as profitable as the print papers of years past, and it’s possible they will never be profitable. The peril of the online business model is its uncertainty.

Ah, but the print business model is even more perilous because of its certainty: an actuarial dwindling of audience amid a further leaching of advertising revenue. The fact that that business model is far more robust in the short term is a comfort only to those who aren’t looking beyond the short term. What Farhi is really proposing is a death sentence — that newspapers retreat to a single channel, become niche products that are decreasingly relevant, and then disappear.

There are no guarantees with digital-first newspapers, but there is hope — hope that repeated experimentation will point the way to an as-yet-elusive online business model, one that adapts newspapers’ traditional strengths and appeal to the new medium in which people increasingly live their lives.

The most promising way to find it? You don’t have to look far. “To compensate for the loss of immediacy, [newspapers] would have to be distinctive and singular, offering something that no Internet competitor could,” Farhi writes of his Web-free world. “They would have to differentiate themselves with exclusive information — all fresh, all local — compelling photography and courageous commentary. They’d still have to cover the news, but in a way that offered additional perspective, beyond the broad outlines available elsewhere. Even more than telling readers something they don’t already know, newspapers will need tons of hustle and enterprise and a unique personality.”

Farhi doesn’t seem to grasp it, but he’s just offered excellent advice for Web newspapers. He seems to think the hallmark of the Internet is immediacy, but it’s not — the Web is awash with up-to-date news that’s bland, interchangeable and essentially worthless. What succeeds online? It’s being distinctive and singular, offering something that can’t be copied. It’s offering perspective. It’s hustle and enterprise and personality.

It’s everything, in short, that Paul Farhi seems to think can only exist in print.

On Original Sin and Social Media’s Future

Posted in Communities, Going Local, Paid Content, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on August 17, 2009

It’s an interesting Monday morning for thoughts about where journalism might be going.

Last week Chris O’Brien wrote a very good blog post for MediaShift Idea Lab critiquing the idea that giving away online news is the newspaper industry’s original sin. Not so, O’Brien says — if there was an original sin, it was overvaluing the journalism newspapers provide and badly undervaluing newspapers’ importance as local community hubs and local community marketplaces. As he argues the case, journalism has always been a small piece of what readers pay for, and calling it the most important part of the paper is a decidedly journalist-centric way of looking at things.

I’ve subscribed to the notion as free content as original sin myself, and will continue to bemoan the fact that top papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post didn’t charge for their content years ago. I firmly believe they could have charged, and that if they had done so then (via a permeable model along the lines of WSJ.com’s), consumer expectations might be different today. But I think one reason I’ve clung so stubbornly to that belief is that charging for content seems like something newspapers could have done themselves, while a lot of the other changes that have battered newspapers feel like gusts in the whirlwind. But that’s awfully easy, and not particularly useful in figuring out how to go forward.

Meanwhile, I could not agree more with O’Brien’s conclusion: Local papers need to stop tying themselves in knots about how to charge, and instead work to regain their status as community hubs and community marketplaces. Heck, I’ve said much the same thing. This is Job One; if papers succeed at it, maybe (and only maybe) can they think about moving to a subscription model.

(Tip of the Cap Department: I found O’Brien’s post through Steve Buttry, who has another idea about the nature of newspaper original sin. To Buttry, it’s that papers lazily ported the print-ad business onto the Web, instead of taking the opportunity to innovate and help businesses built real connections with consumers. Again, I completely agree — this is part of the erosion of newspapers as the glue of their communities.)

Another big topic: Here’s the best explainer I’ve read so far on Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed, by Chadwick Matlin in Slate’s The Big Money. To that, add this Kara Swisher post on All Things Digital about what Huffington Post is doing with Facebook Connect. Taken together, you have a blueprint for where social media is going — Facebook is simultaneously putting a piece of itself into sites and bringing more stuff from sites into itself. Very soon, having a social-media “outpost” (the term itself is revealing) will mean absolutely nothing: Publishers need to follow the Huffington Post’s lead and make sure they’re harnessing social media’s possibilities in all directions. Social media is already a reader-driven distribution network for bits and pieces of one’s brand; it will also soon be connective fiber for readers within one’s brand.

Finally: If you haven’t read Bill Wyman’s two-part jeremiad about the failure of newspapers, do so. Compelling, passionately argued and thought-provoking.

Comments on Commenting

Posted in Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on August 14, 2009

At Poynter, Patrick Thornton’s advice on making comments better while showing trolls, racists and other ne’er-do-wells the virtual door should be required reading for digital journalists. For the most part, it’s simple, practical advice: Engage with commenters, elevate good comments in roundup posts, and hit the unredeemable with the ban hammer. And the one bit of advice that would require some back-end work — verifying users — is well worth considering.

One of the things I like best about the baseball blog I co-write is our roster of well-informed, thoughtful and witty commenters — often when I write a post I find myself wondering how Joe D. or CharlieH or KingmanFan or one of the many other Faith and Fear in Flushing readers will have to say. How did Greg Prince and I create that community? Mostly it created itself — we wrote stuff people liked day in and day out, and those people gave us a huge compliment by making our site part of their daily habits. But we also did some of the things Thornton advises: We joined the conversation and responded to comments on posts, and we had zero tolerance for trolling and commenters going after each other personally. (If we delete a comment, we explain why, in hopes that a commenter who’s new or had a bad day will understand and try again. We’ve never had to ban anybody.)

The result is a rich conversation and loyal readers. Readers appreciate a certain amount of protection: Everybody (even trolls) wants to see if their comment caused somebody to respond, but nobody (except trolls) likes to see a conversation go off the rails, with sniping and back-biting drowning out any attempt at an interesting discussion. Protect the conversation by kicking out the uncivil and you’ll eventually see something wonderful happen: Your commenters will defend your site against abusers and vandals as vigorously as you would, if not more so.

Still, I’m careful with the self-congratulations. Faith and Fear is a relatively small community, and scaling up personal moderation, promotion of comments and other good commenting habits is difficult. As Thornton notes, columnists should moderate their own work — it’s in their own best interests and should be a baseline part of the job — but I sympathize with reporters whose stories may hit a nerve and explode with comments.

That’s my one (mild) reservation about Thornton’s advice: It may not scale for big sites.

Big sites need not only best practices but also technological help, and figuring out the right mix is something I’ve been playing with for some time at EidosMedia. (Our editing-and-publishing systems include comment-moderation tools.) As is the case so often with the Web, I think the first answer is to give the tools to the commenters themselves:

  • Let users give comments a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sure, some people will vote up everyone who agrees with them and vote down everyone who doesn’t. But that will average out, with trolls and blowhards voted disproportionately down. Fade or hide comments below a certain threshold, giving a site de facto moderation without resource headaches.
  • Let users “ignore” other users, so their comments are replaced (for that user only) by a simple **You are ignoring this user.** I use this regularly on troll-heavy discussion boards I frequent, and it’s really satisfying.

To that, add some tools and practices for moderators and site administrators, giving you a number of ways to keep undesirables in line:

  • An excellent tip from Placeblogger CEO Lisa Williams: Moderate new users’ first 10 comments. Trolls and haters are mostly people with poor impulse control, and few will be able to summon up the patience to leave 10 reasonable comments and then let rip. I bet doing this would eliminate about 90% of most big sites’ comment troubles.
  • “Disemvoweling” a comment lets trolls and tinfoil-hatters rage on, with only consonants displayed. I’ve heard the result described as like reading something said by someone who’s inhaled helium from a balloon — it emasculates hate speech, leaving the hater squeaking away in a vaguely comical fashion. You probably don’t need this if users are voting and new users are vetted using Williams’ rule, but it’s an effective option.
  • “Bozo filters” let the user keep posting, but he or she is the only one who sees the comment. Again, this might not be needed if you’re using the above techniques, but it’s a good alternative to the ban hammer in that trolls and troublemakers may not know they’ve been banned and seek to creep in another way. Plus there’s something wonderfully satisfying about it, isn’t there?

To all this, one more thought. Yes, comments promote a two-way flow of information between writers and readers, and that’s great. But seen from a slight remove, the health of a comments section is another way of measuring reader engagement. An active commenter has made your site a habit, and that’s what we all want. Habitual readers are different from drive-by readers coming in to a single article via search or sharing. They’re the readers you can tailor ads to, upsell to premium products or convert to subscriptions.

Voting buttons for comments are a form of moderation, but they also give readers something to play with. The same goes for ignoring users, and a host of other things you can do related to comments. Let readers see their number of posts, and give them visual rankings they can aspire to. Let them follow other users, direct-message them and fill out mini-profiles — tools borrowed from social networking. To spur engagement, do everything  you can to foster a sense of play alongside good conversation.

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Subscriptions: I’m Optimistic (for a Depressing Reason)

Posted in Associated Press, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 10, 2009

Another week, and more fitful signs of hope among papers planning to charge for access to news.

Again, it’s not the plans to charge that I regard as a hopeful sign — I still fear too many papers are deluding themselves that their online content and presentation are good enough and different enough to attract paying customers. For example, I recently picked up a Boston Globe while waiting for the shuttle at Logan and was sad to see what this once-great paper had become. I really doubt the online version of the Globe I read could survive as a subscription product.

So what gave me hope? It’s that papers seem to be forgoing flags-and-trumpets talk about their importance to democracy, what hard work journalism is, or what customers should do. I’m sympathetic to all three points, but none of them has anything to do with the task at hand.

As a co-founder of Journalism Online, you’d expect Steven Brill to be reassuring about paid content. But in Matthew Flamm’s Crain’s New York Business article, Brill notes that the paid model “puts the burden back on the editors to invest in and create content that’s really distinctive and not simply fungible.” That’s correct, and in line with Rupert Murdoch saying that his papers will stave off free competitors by “making our content better and differentiated from other people.” I’m not convinced The Sun can be a for-pay success story like The Wall Street Journal Online, just as I doubt the Globe could charge where I think the New York Times could. But at least the media barons no longer seem to think readers will simply get out their credit cards in obedience to some sort of moral imperative.

My EidosMedia colleague Steve Ball and I had a lively, friendly argument about subscriptions last week. Steve is more pessimistic than I am about papers being able to move from a free model to a for-pay model: I think the New York Times could definitely implement a pay wall (preferably of the “leaky” type — so dubbed by David Carr — that’s been so successful for WSJ.com) and believe the Washington Post could do it if they keep building on their general surefootedness (Hillary Clinton swipes aside) with online features, style and voice. Steve doesn’t. Moreover, he thinks the success of WSJ.com and the Financial Times reflect that their information can be used to make money — conventional wisdom I think is more convenient for other papers than it is true. (I think those success stories reflect a combination of quality journalism and the simple, self-reinforcing psychological message that “I pay for it, so it has value — and since it has value, I pay for it.”)

But what really struck me about our debate was that there is a considerable gap between the current media world and the one that will have to emerge for newspapers to succeed in charging for online content. To charge, newspapers will have to go truly digital-first, reorganizing their staffs around the Web, revamping their Web sites to create new context for different kinds of readers, and of course creating compelling, unique Web content. Today that’s still an afterthought for too many papers.

And even then, Steve wanted to know what would stop readers from heading elsewhere for content that might not be as good, but would be good enough — particularly if you weren’t looking for particularly high-quality content in the first place. My answer was that there’d be a lot less good-enough content: Papers would become aggregators instead of paying a lot of money for commoditized national and international content from the repurposing arm of the AP, and a lot of also-ran papers would no longer exist. The glut of “good enough” content — a legacy of the days in which geographic isolation insulated papers from competition — would be gone, and readers would be more willing to pay (sometimes grudgingly) for what remained.

Our disagreements about financial news aside, Steve was primarily talking about the world that is — and opining correctly that for most papers, subscriptions wouldn’t work. I was primarily talking about the world that could be — and opining hopefully that for some papers, subscriptions will work.

But that left me face to face with an unhappy truth: My world that could be includes a lot fewer papers, and a lot fewer journalists. It means the pitiless downsizing of the industry has only begun. It means a lot more journalists trying out second careers, as I and thousands of my peers have done.

I didn’t shrink from the thought — neither sorrow nor defiance will prevent the cycle of hopefully creative destruction from continuing — but all of a sudden my optimism seemed like the slightest hint of silver in an awfully dark cloud.

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The Real Subscription Question: Are You Ready?

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 6, 2009

Rupert Murdoch, who was briefly my boss (at considerable remove) at the Wall Street Journal Online, says he plans to charge for all News Corp. news sites by next summer. “I believe that if we’re successful, we’ll be followed fast by other media,” he says, adding that News Corp. will avoid losing readers to free competitors by “making our content better and differentiated from other people”. (More here, from Andrew Clark in The Guardian.)

I have no ideological disagreement with the idea of newspapers charging for subscriptions — in fact, I’ve urged that more papers look at the hybrid model of WSJ.com, which takes in subscription fees without sacrificing visibility online. But I think every newspaper thinking of taking this step needs to ask itself some tough questions first:

  • Is our content really good enough that people will pay for it?
  • Is our content sufficiently different from that of our competitors that people will pay for it?
  • Have we built our paper into a daily habit for our readers, and made it a place where they want to spend time?

Murdoch raised the first two questions himself, and assumes his papers will be able to answer “yes” to them. I certainly hope he’s right. (WSJ.com, at least, already can answer “yes.”) But I wonder how many papers could honestly say the same thing. And I fear that a lot of papers following Murdoch’s lead won’t ask those tough questions above. Instead, they’ll ask some variant of the wrong question, the one that’s unfortunately dominating a lot of the conversation in the newspaper industry:

  • Should consumers pay for content?

That’s irrelevant to the business decision at hand. In fact, it’s dangerously distracting. As Jeff Jarvis notes on his blog, “the debate has been about emotions and entitlement, not economics.”  In his own piece for the Guardian, Jarvis offers a mixed reaction to the news, saying he’s all for publishers charging if they can but warning that “for most, pinning hopes for the survival of news on charging for it is not only futile but possibly suicidal.”

I agree — and I found little to dissuade me in something else I read today: Martin Langeveld’s examination, at Nieman Journalism Lab, of the latest NAA/Nielsen numbers about the U.S. daily newspaper Web audience. On the surface, the numbers look impressive: more than 70.3 million unique visitors to newspaper sites in June (nearly 36% of all Internet users), 3.5 billion page views, 2.7 billion minutes spent browsing sites, and more than 597 million total sessions.

Sounds Carl Sagan big, but Langeveld does the math, and reveals that those numbers are in fact Lilliputian: The population NAA/Nielsen measured was responsible for nearly 503.5 billion page views. That means the percentage of those page views that went to newspaper Web sites was 0.69 percent. And newspaper Web sites accounted for less than 1 percent of time spent online.

That’s not daily habit. That’s not reader loyalty. Rather, that’s drive-by traffic, empty numbers accumulated by readers who aren’t engaging with newspaper Web sites. And papers that try to charge from that starting point have no chance of succeeding.

Social Media and the New Distributors

Posted in Creating Context, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on August 5, 2009

I spent yesterday in Boston at Reinventing Journalism and Yourself: One Tweet, One Friend at a Time, a pre-conference to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications‘ annual convention. (Sadly, I couldn’t stick around for the whole thing.)

I came back with a lot to think about concerning the journalism and social media, from educators’ struggles to keep up with students who are steeped in social media (and sometimes vice versa) to the warning that great social-media skills can’t be a substitute for a basic grounding in journalism. And there was a basic but firm reminder that social media is no longer an interesting little experiment: Nieman Journalism Lab‘s Joshua Benton noted that Twitter drives more than 20% of Nieman’s traffic, more than Google.

I’ve been thinking about social media a lot recently, with an eye towards how EidosMedia can improve our software to help publishers meet social media’s challenges and take advantage of its opportunities. But of course that’s not something a software maker can do alone: Publishers have to be interested in those challenges and opportunities too — and they have to see them clearly.

And that’s the part that worries me a bit.

When publishers’ initial approach to social media is telling their employees what they shouldn’t do, I worry that’s not the right starting point. (So what is it? Glad you asked.)

Ditto for publishers that are gung-ho for social media, but approach it by drawing up plans for their own social networks. (Are you really going to do as good a job as Facebook? And even if you are, will all your readers who are already on Facebook really set up a new social identity?)

Even when publishers embrace social media, I worry that they may see it primarily as a way for readers to talk among themselves. That drives up time spent on a site and increases reader loyalty, both of which are great, but it misses the larger point, which was brought home to me by something Dan Gillmor said up in Boston.

Gillmor noted that newspaper distribution is changing from putting stuff on trucks to telling people that stuff is out and they can come and get it. Social media, he said, is distribution.

That’s the game-changer, and I’d take it a step further: Social media isn’t just a new way to push a message to potential readers via a paper’s Facebook pages or Twitter feeds — a virtual dinner bell calling readers in for informational nourishment. It’s also a means by which readers themselves act as distributors — they’re the equivalent of the print era’s truck drivers, delivering news to the countless little (and big!) newsstands of personal pages, Twitter feeds and other outlets.

I’d bet that most publishers worry far more about SEO than they do about sharing, when sharing may be more important to their bottom lines. And social media means a lot more than having a Share link next to Email This on stories. Few publishers have given serious thought to the fact that (like search) social media makes every single article a gateway into the rest of the paper. Different readers will arrive at that gateway via different paths and with different expectations, yet readers rarely see any context for an article except a newspaper’s Web navigation. New contexts are desperately needed if readers are going to be enticed into reading more, staying longer and becoming loyal. (Further thoughts here.)

Readers are the new distributors, and social media is the truck. And, as Nieman’s experience shows, they’re already driving it. Publishers can’t control that, but they should be doing everything in their power to take advantage of it.

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