Like most everybody else in digital-pundit circles, I watched every bit of Steve Jobs’s iPad introduction while in typical ADD multi-tasking mode: CNBC on TV, Engadget on one tab, audio of the event streaming (as well as buffering and stuttering) on another, Twitter reactions volleying in on a third. Like many other people, my first reaction was one of vague disappointment: This is kinda cool, but it sure feels like the Earth is still spinning on its old familiar axis. And where’s the WPA For Laid-Off Journalists app?
But a couple of hours later, I found myself thinking about Apple’s new device differently. What the geekerati are missing is the same thing I missed at first: We are not the intended audience for this device, at least not at first.
No multitasking! No Flash! No phone! No HDMI out! Got it. Understood. I thought variants of the same thing. But instead of thinking about what the iPad doesn’t do, think about what it does do. And instead of thinking about technology, think about activities. It does at least three things I can think of a lot better than current devices.
- Video: Watching a movie on a plane/bus/the subway/etc. remains one of those dancing-bear dog-walking-on-hind-legs experiences — its relative novelty causes us to focus on the fact that it’s being done at all and to ignore the fact that it’s not being done well. Watching a movie on a laptop stinks. You worry about the battery life, envision the guy in front of you violently reclining his seat and snapping your screen, and find yourself leaning forward, like an office worker on vague furlough. Watching a movie on an iPhone or iTouch also kind of stinks — the screen’s nice, but movies aren’t made to be watched on screens the size of playing cards. The iPad offers a much better experience — good battery life, decent-sized screen, and a device you can lean back and cradle.
- Books: The iPad has received the best reactions for the introduction of iBooks, and deservedly so. I’d of course want this impression confirmed firsthand, but it looks like a much lusher, immersive experience than the Kindle or the Nook, and one that’s closer to sitting down with a physical book. Meanwhile, the bigger screen holds promise for adapting magazines to a new format, and possibly the same will be true of newspapers. More on them in a bit.
- Casual Web Surfing: I doubt I’d want to use the iPad for frenetically beavering away for information over multiple sites, but it’s great for unwinding with some time on Facebook, sorting through emails that aren’t mission-critical, goofing around reading blogs, or looking for stats while watching a ballgame. Here, again, no existing device has been a great fit. I’ve never liked sitting in bed or on the couch with a laptop — they’re heavy, radiate heat and you tend to scrunch yourself forward to engage with them. And surfing on the iPhone is a messy tango of picking windows and pinching and zooming in on a small chunk of a page — I’m glad I can do it, but I try not to. The iPad offers the first real chance that this kind of casual surfing could actually be pleasurable.
For geeks (and I’m a card-carrying member) this kind of stuff is a recreational sidelight to the real business of a device, but not everybody is like us. Lots and lots of folks are happy to spend time watching something, and then settling in with a book, and then casually surfing some favorite sites, and now they have a device that improves on current ways to do all three of those things. It finally makes the digital version of all three a “lean-back” experience with a normal-sized screen. That’s new, and I bet it will be welcomed.
And the iPad will prove reassuring in other ways, too. As with the iPhone, the complexity of setup is largely submerged, which is the way computers should work in the first place: If you can hook up a cable, drag and drop things and remember your password, you’re good to go. The iPad will handle photos and music just fine. It doesn’t demand a year’s commitment to a wireless carrier. And it comes with the usual Apple cool factor. For a lot of people, that’s a pretty great combination.
Am I going to rush out and get an iPad? Probably not — I generally opt for Version 2 of devices, when the kinks are out and new capabilities have been introduced. I thought the least-convincing part of today’s presentation was the attempt to portray the iPad as a productivity tool: Hooking an iPad up to an external keyboard and making a spreadsheet with it seems more like proving a point than taking advantage of its best features. Besides, I’m used to leaning forward and dorking around with settings and drivers. But I think I’ll get there eventually — and I won’t be surprised if my opinions have changed by the time I do.
Which brings us to newspapers. No, there was no walk-on-the-water moment for publishers. But I think the fervent hope for one says more about publishers’ dire straits than it does about reality. This is a transitional device for publishers, but let’s not overlook the potential importance of that. Getting consumers of news and information to lean back in a digital setting may be more important in revitalizing our industry and rebuilding our bonds with readers than we initially think.
When the New York Times appeared on the iPad’s screen, my first reaction was disappointment. Oh goody, it’s print. It was elegant and pretty, but it also looked static and antique. But you know what? It was easy to read. The layout did invite you to linger. And the video was there, as I presume slideshows and other goodies would be too. (Not to mention it’s Version 1.)
And then I realized for a lot of people this was comfortable and familiar, and remembered the lesson I’d drawn elsewhere: I’m not the audience. At least not yet.
(Hat tip to my EidosMedia pal David Baker for remembering Johnson’s original quote was about a dog, not a bear. This is another reason bloggers need editors: They not only find your mistakes but can also help you with that reference you suspect you don’t have quite right.)
Apologies for being scarce recently — I was hurtling towards deadline on a book. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and write books for Lucasfilm’s licensees. Which is a good introduction to this post.
For the first time in my adult career, I’m a free agent with no immediate plans to take up a permanent position somewhere. I’m trying to make a living by writing, editing, and helping people think through their strategies for journalism and social media. (If I can help you, drop me a line.) As many a freelancer before me has discovered, it’s simultaneously a frightening and exhilarating life.
Am I cut out for this life? I’m not sure yet. But I do know that for more and more journalists and writers, this is the future. I’ve preached and warned as much on this blog. And so it behooves me to figure out how to make my way in that world as best I can, as soon as I can.
If you’re a journalist (or any other kind of writer), the days of being an artist insulated from the business considerations of what you do are over. You can no longer afford that kind of blissful, basic ignorance. And unless you’re a very lucky journalist or writer, the days of being able to make a career doing just one thing are either over or numbered. You can’t afford not to diversify, or at least to think hard about how you’d do so if you had to.
My path to learning both these lessons began accidentally. In late 2004 and early 2005 I found that blogging — then the stuff of revolutionary talk — kept finding its way into Real Time, the technology column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal Online. I realized that my columns would be better if I wrote a blog for a month or so, and so my friend Greg Prince and I started up a blog about the New York Mets, which we christened Faith and Fear in Flushing. My idea was that we’d keep the blog up through spring training — experience enough for making future columns better-informed.
At the time, despite nearly a decade as a Web guy, I had internalized some unfortunate ivory-tower attitudes that more typically afflict print reporters. How many readers read my columns and how they reacted to them was something for people elsewhere in the building to worry about — I was a thinker and a writer, and thinkers and writers didn’t have to dirty their hands with traffic numbers. The first month of co-writing Faith and Fear erased that mindset forever: I saw our numbers every day, and I sifted through them for clues about why one post connected with readers and another one didn’t. Instead of seeing myself as part of a monolithic entity, I was singing for my supper. That taught me the foolishness of being a veal calf about my own business, and immediately made me a better columnist. (As an added bonus, writing without an editor forced me to get a lot better at proofreading my own work and scrutinizing its arguments and structure.)
Now that I’m on my own, I’m learning to take this a step further by crunching numbers and evaluating whether potential projects pay the bills, might lead to other projects that will, or don’t make economic sense. (One of my to-dos is to put ads on the baseball blog, still going strong after nearly five years.) I have a lot to learn, but at least I’m a long way from the veal pen — and I know I’ll never go back into it.
Faith and Fear was also my first real step into diversifying what I do. From there, I began writing Star Wars books for publishers such as DK, Del Rey and Penguin. While working for EidosMedia I began writing this blog — and am keeping it up now that I’m on my own. I accepted an invitation to write a weekly column about sportswriting and new media for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, building on co-writing and editing the Daily Fix for WSJ.com and my experiences as a Mets blogger. I write other articles on a freelance basis. I’m an editor-for-hire. I work as a consultant.
That’s a lot of different things, and makes for busy days and nights. I don’t know which of these various mini-businesses will prove profitable, which new ones I’ll enjoy, or what I’ll do when profit and enjoyment get out of sync. I don’t know what new things I’ll add to the mix. I don’t know if the entirety of what I do will bring in enough money to pay for food and clothes and doctoring and my kid’s schooling and my half of the mortgage and hopefully the occasional Mets game, dinner out and day at the beach. I don’t know that keeping records and crunching numbers and negotiating deals will ever feel natural to me, or get done without gritted teeth.
But I do know that this is the reality for most writers these days. And since for better or worse writing is my calling, I need to learn to get along in that world instead of wasting time in wistful thought about what being a writer used to be. The days of being a veal calf are over, and the one-trick ponies were last seen being herded into the same truck that took away the veal calves.
Central Illinois’ The Pantagraph recently instituted a brief time-out during which no comments were allowed on new local news. The reasons why will be all too familiar to anyone who’s tried to host an online community or even be a member — which is to say just about everybody.
As editor Mark Pickering explained in announcing the time-out, “the problem is one of civility. … Unfortunately, some commenters choose to ignore the rules of fair play and civil discourse, which only yields responses from others that turn a legitimate ‘discussion’ into a free-for-all that has no place on our Web site.”
I certainly sympathize. But I think The Pantagraph — and many other news organizations and Web sites dealing with the same problem — would get more out of giving its readers tools to help them police their own community.
The Pantagraph already has some pretty good tools, including a mini-social network in which commenters can friend each other, write their own blogs, and create compelling personas. That’s a great start. And on the discussion side, readers can report abusive comments. But comment moderation doesn’t scale particularly well once communities reach a certain size, it only takes a couple of trolls to spoil a discussion, and hiring more moderators is an expense few news organizations can afford right now.
What’s more likely to work is to put more tools in readers’ hands and to give them more to do within discussions. It’s fairly simple for a good IT department, it’s cost-effective, and it lets readers do the work for the news organization — a principle espoused by Tom Sawyer long ago.
For instance, give users the ability to vote comments up or down, and then fade comments below a certain threshold. The typical objection to this is that people will vote up those who agree with them and vote down those who don’t, and so cancel each other out. To a certain extent that’s true. But enough people will punish bad conduct that trolls and the serially obnoxious will get voted down and out of visibility, effectively moderated without staffers having to intervene. Moreover, voting up or down can be addictive — and anything that gets readers to spend more time on your site is potentially valuable to you.
Second, let users “ignore” other users, replacing their comments (for that user only) with a string such as **You are ignoring this user.** It’s surprisingly satisfying, and effective — particularly if users can see how many people are ignoring them.
Finally, make users’ “rank” more apparent. Show their number of posts, giving visual awards after a certain number. (Seems nuts? Think how excited some of us get when the color of our eBay star changes.) Show the average rating of their posts by other users, their number of friends, and things like that. Valuable readers get to advertise their value to the community, while readers who need to work on their impulse control can see that as plainly as everyone else can.
These tactics not only let readers help with comment moderation, but also give discussion boards a sense of play, making readers more likely to engage with them and come back to them. That’s a win-win.
In addition, give moderators and site administrators some targeted new tools, such as disemvoweling (reducing a troll’s comment to consonants only, which turns hateful screeds into comical blither) and bozo-filtering (which lets users keep posting, but only they see their comments). Those two are useful, but my favorite idea belongs to Placeblogger’s Lisa Williams: Moderate users’ first 10 comments.
It’s a simple idea, but a really effective one. Trolls and haters want a reaction, and thrive on instant feedback. Few of them will be able to control themselves for 10 comments just to get a rise out of someone with the 11th. Reasonable people, meanwhile, will understand the reason for the trial period (particularly if you approve comments held for moderation quickly) and may even appreciate what it does to the tone of debate.
The Pantagraph’s heart is in the right place. But I doubt its cooling-off period will work — if people who like to bait each other on discussion boards thought about their own actions, they wouldn’t indulge in name-calling and incivility in the first place. Yet the Pantagraph, like other papers, has fields too big for a few shepherds to police. The best defense against wolves? Pass out sticks.
Hope the holidays were good to everybody — I needed a recharge myself. But now it’s 2010 and time to get going. What kind of year is it going to be for the news industry?
It’s my hope that the combination of a reviving economy and the scary carnage of late 2008 and 2009 will spur news organizations to get more aggressive and more forward-thinking, actively experimenting and rethinking and asking hard questions about the way things have always been. So it was disappointing to begin the year with this survey by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds of the prospects for mobile, local and social-media advertising. Edmonds writes that “what makes sense as a high-risk, high-reward play for [venture capitalists and big digital players] should not be seen as a sure thing with immediate revenue prospects. I think you could blame the optimistic forecasts of recent years for mistaking a possibility for a trend. Even I don’t want to start the year on a note of digital denial. But perhaps 2010 will turn out to be another year of sorting out, rather than taking off, for ads in any of these growth sectors.”
Rabble-rousing isn’t Edmonds’ thing, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect it of him, but this was really frustrating to read — it smacks of the reactive passivity that’s left news organizations taking shot after shot to the jaw. If 2010 is going to be another year of sorting out, news organizations have to be an active part of that sorting out, instead of waiting around to see what happens.
Happily, Steve Buttry had already pounced, arguing in the comments that “if we don’t pursue mobile opportunities aggressively, we’ll regret this as another squandered opportunity. Waiting for serious revenue is not a strategy for success. Serious revenue comes to those who pursue it, not those who wait for it.”
Exactly. Quit waiting around — for things to settle out, for business models to emerge, for the Apple Tablet to change the game (I liked Andrew Golis‘s derisive tweet: “If my business model were dying, I would definitely just cross my fingers and hope Steve Jobs saves it. What could go wrong?”), for someone else to go first. Go out and figure out what your readers want and how they’re using technology to get it, and try and deliver that. If that means old ways of doing things need to be rethought or abandoned, accept that. If it means failing (and in some cases it will), that’s fine — figure out what worked and what didn’t and try to get the arrow closer to the target.
For example, you could take Judy Sims’s advice — she has seven New Year’s resolutions for news executives, and this parting message: “There’s just one problem with comfortable solutions. In the online world, chances are, if a solution makes you feel comfortable and in control, it’s probably not radical enough to work. … Stop trying to feel comfortable. You are not in a comfortable situation.”
Indeed. Yet uncomfortable experimentation doesn’t need to undermine the core values of journalism — it can support and restore those values.
In a nice get-your-guns New Year’s post for Nieman Journalism Lab, Gina Chen remembers Saturday night shifts on the city desk, answering people’s seemingly bizarre questions: “On what channel will the local college basketball game be shown? Is there trash pickup tomorrow because of the holiday? If I mail a package today, will it make it to my grandchildren by Christmas? A wise editor of mine explained that we should be proud readers came to us with these questions because it meant the newspaper was so intrinsic to people’s lives that it was the first place they went for answers. Newspapers still need to be that today.”
Chen is right — newspapers ought to be figuring out how to answer those questions, not training people to find answers somewhere else. In the New York Times, Daniel E. Slotnick writes about the Manchester, Conn., Journal-Inquirer’s use of SeeClickFix, a Web tool that lets people identify community problems for local officials to fix. That mission is perfectly aligned with a news organization’s mission to be a central hub of its community. Reading about it, I immediately flashed back to the Wilmington StarNews and MyReporter, which lets readers ask the StarNews newsroom questions that are then assigned to staffers. The site’s mission is to make the staff its community’s help desk, a perfect fit for the role Chen came to appreciate. (Read more about it here from Vaughn Hagerty.)
These are great experiments, which don’t replace a newsroom’s role so much as they reimagine it and extend it for a new era. The experiments that succeed can help restore news organizations to their old role as nerve centers of their communities — a role they have not yet lost but will soon if they continue to dawdle and agonize. And this experimental ethos and renewed mission should be extended to everything else. Instead of just selling ads to local businesses (or waiting around for a better read of the local-advertising tea leaves), go out and help local businesses set up their own online storefronts — and take a cut of sales. Instead of just running wedding announcements, use that section as a way to hook up other families with caterers and florists and bakers. (And take a cut!) Make the best damn interactive local-events guide you can imagine, so that the newspaper Web site (or some slice of it) is the default place to figure out what to do on Saturday night. Figure out how to make location-aware services work for everything from traffic updates to events to restaurant specials. Instead of sighing over lousy discussion boards in which people type in capital letters and call each other Hitler, give readers tools to create and police their own communities and figure out together what works.
The time for waiting around is over — the folks who want to take what’s left of our business aren’t going to spend 2010 waiting to see which way the business-model winds are blowing. It’s time to get out there and do stuff.