Reinventing the Newsroom

The IPad and Its Real Audience

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, IPad by reinventingthenewsroom on January 27, 2010

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.)

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Alan Rusbridger and the Way Forward

Posted in Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on January 26, 2010

Yesterday Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, delivered the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication. The text of his speech is available here from the Guardian, and it’s worth reading, thinking about, and then re-reading. It’s one of the best surveys of modern journalism I’ve read. Rusbridger turns a discerning eye on admirable stories and successful investigations undertaken in print and on the Web and through blogs and via Twitter. He does so with generous praise for a range of news organizations’ journalists, not just his own. And his delight in the results is wonderfully evident. That last part makes his speech also one of the most stirring invocations of what journalism can do today, and the new ways in which journalists can do it. Fledgling journalists wondering if they should really commit to this somewhat-battered profession ought to read it — they’ll find their faith renewed.

But having said all that, I was least convinced by the part of the speech that’s getting the most attention. Rusbridger’s discussion of paywalls struck me as lacking much of the nuance that made the rest of his speech so compelling. As articulated here, his vision of paywalls feels like a straw man (albeit a very elegantly constructed one) — one borrowed from mid-Aughts ruminations that I doubt anyone is still seriously considering. Rusbridger spends a lot of time jabbing (in a courtly yet deadly way) at Rupert Murdoch, but seems to take Murdoch’s rhetoric at face value when he knows better. (I know there’s a certain amount of U.K. press-baron soap opera here that’s going over my head, context-wise.)

Rusbridger begins with an aversion to talking about business models, then says he’s going to focus on one that “radically affects some of the most stimulating ideas of what journalism is becoming, or could become.” That model, he says, is the one “that one that says we must charge for all content online. It’s the argument that says the age of free is over: we must now extract direct monetary return from the content we create in all digital forms.”

He means Murdoch’s call for universal paywalls, but c’mon. That’s saber-rattling by Murdoch, aimed in various measures at Google, Microsoft and Murdoch’s own competitors. This is, of course, standard operating procedure for Murdoch — his Journal tenure (which briefly overlapped mine) began with the same kind of bluff charge, except back then the word from on high was that everything would be free. Murdoch’s Sky News is free, and will undoubtedly stay that way. So are other properties of his, such as Harper Collins’ BookArmy. Rusbridger mentions both by way of catching Murdoch in his own contradictions, but he could have avoided all that heavy lifting by simply not professing to believe his rival in the first place.

Here’s Rusbridger’s elegantly stated defense of the link economy: “If you universally make people pay for your content it follows that you are no longer open to the rest of the world, except at a cost. That might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.”

Beautifully said, but is anyone still seriously proposing such a thing? The New York Times isn’t, not with its metered paywall that’s arriving at the approximate speed of continental drift. (Social-media links won’t count against the monthly allotment.) The Journal opened up its own walled garden years ago — an innovation sometimes credited to Murdoch, but which actually predates him. Even if Murdoch were to revisit previous fulminations and pull his content from Google, that content would still spread via social media, which I bet will soon rival or eclipse industrial search in importance.

Rusbridger goes on to say that “there is probably general agreement that we may all want to charge for specialist, highly-targeted, hard-to-replicate content. It’s the ‘universal’ bit that is uncertain. … Isn’t there, in any case, more to be learned at this stage of the revolution, by different people trying different models – maybe different models within their own businesses – than all stampeding to one model?”

Again, beautifully said: This should be an age of experimentation, albeit one with a sense of urgency. Absolutely, there is more to be learned. But who disagrees? I don’t see everybody stampeding to one model — I think most everybody agrees that the universal bit is too uncertain to be seriously entertained. And I don’t see anyone stampeding to the absolutist model Rusbridger has described. It no longer exists as a viable candidate.

Rusbridger notes that in 1921, legendary Guardian editor CP Scott surveyed how the telegraph and telephone were shrinking the world and exulted, “What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!” In a similar spirit, he notes that the Guardian grew its audience by 40% in a year, and is now read by more Americans than read the Los Angeles Times. (Not the greatest example these days, but I get his point.) But while I admire the spirit, this ignores a rather substantial elephant in the room: The telegraph and the telephone gave the Guardian and other newspapers a chance to extend their reach and their authority in unprecedented ways, but they didn’t destroy its business model without ushering in a replacement. The Web and its associated digital services are doing just that. CP Scott would have of course concerned himself with that rather uneasy bargain, and asked how the Guardian planned to translate its growth and newfound American audience into making money.

This isn’t an argument for retreating to print or erecting impenetrable paywalls. We need to decouple journalism from its longtime business model before that old model drags it under, even though no new business model is in place — the industry is, to quote a rock star, a fish trying to learn to breathe air. It’s not the way anyone would choose to make such a transition, but here we are nonetheless. Rusbridger is right that “if you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis,” but you can also paralyze yourself by not thinking about business models at all — which is how the industry got so deeply mired in its current mess. Like it or not, we have to think about business models — and not about caricatures of them. I wish his speech had considered this part of the puzzle as eloquently as it covered journalism’s very real new opportunities.

A Lesson in Newspaper Economics — From a Rock Star

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on January 21, 2010

In the summer of 2006, the band OK Go unveiled a video for their single “Here It Goes Again.” Even if you don’t know OK Go, you’ve seen this video — it’s the one with the band dancing on treadmills. The video for “Here It Goes Again” became a phenomenon — it’s been viewed on YouTube more than 49 million times — dramatically raising both the band’s profile and that of “viral marketing.” (It’s also catchy as hell, and name-checks the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa.”)

Picture of the band OK Go

You could learn a lot from a rock star.

Given that success story, this next part will seem insane. OK Go just released a new album and another endearingly DIY video, for the song “This Too Shall Pass.” Obviously, the band hopes its new video also becomes a viral hit. But a big weapon in its social-media arsenal isn’t available: EMI, OK Go’s record label, won’t let the video be embedded on Web sites and blogs. And in some countries, it can’t be viewed at all.

“We wish there was something we could do,” lead singer Damian Kulash writes in an open letter on the band’s Web site. “Believe us, we want you to pass our videos around more than you do, but, crazy as it may seem, it’s now far harder for bands to make videos accessible online than it was four years ago.”

Kulash adds that despite the band’s success leveraging blogs and social media to spread its videos and make EMI a profit, “we’re – unbelievably – stuck in the position of arguing with our own label about the merits of having our videos be easily shared. It’s like the world has gone backwards.”

The problem, as Kulash explains it, is that EMI gets a bit of money when an OK Go video is viewed on YouTube’s site, but nothing when that video is embedded. And so the label won’t allow embeds.

While obviously frustrated, Kulash isn’t completely unsympathetic to his label’s plight: “We’ve argued with them a lot about it, but we also understand why they’re doing it. They’re aware that their rules make it harder for people to watch and share our videos, but, while our duty is to our music and our fans, theirs is to their shareholders, and they believe they’re doing the right thing.”

And Kulash offers a clear-eyed assessment of the economics of the music industry that ought to make journalists and newspaper executives prick up their ears.

“What we’re really talking about here is the shift in the way we think about music,” he writes. “We’re stuck between two worlds: the world of ten years ago, where music was privately owned in discrete little chunks (CDs), and a new one that seems to be emerging, where music is universally publicly accessible. The thing is, only one of these worlds has a (somewhat) stable system in place for funding music and all of its associated nuts-and-bolts logistics, and, even if it were possible, none of us would willingly return to that world. Aside from the smug assholes who ran labels, who’d want a system where a handful of corporate overlords shove crap down our throats? All the same, if music is going to be more than a hobby, someone, literally, has to pay the piper. So we’ve got this ridiculous situation where the machinery of the old system is frantically trying to contort and reshape and rewire itself to run without actually selling music. It’s like a car trying to figure out how to run without gas, or a fish trying to learn to breathe air.”

Kulash is no veal calf — he understands the realities of the business he’s in. And he sees that while things are changing, that change involves a pretty profound dislocation, with attendant difficulties, losses and ridiculousness.

You could learn a lot from a rock star.

Time Waits for No One — Not Even the Times

Posted in Cultural Change, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on January 20, 2010

So yesterday, reviewing two early reactions to the unofficial news about the New York Times adopting a metered pay model, I wrote that such posts “reassure me there’s plenty of experimentation out there, at least for paywalls. Will one of those paths yield an answer that ‘saves’ journalism? I doubt it — but at this early stage, salvation isn’t a realistic goal. It’s enough that we all learn things for the next iteration of experiments, and move quickly to put them in place.”

Today, the Times has officially announced its plans. (Here’s the staff memo.) Bully for the experiment, as said yesterday. But where’s the quickly part? This would have been a great memo if it had been dated January 20, 2009. Since it’s dated today and discussing what will happen in 2011, it looks oddly timid even when it’s being smart.

Image of Treebeard, from LOTR

2011? Seriously?

For example, Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson write that “our strategy is to build the metered model while we remain focused on making NYTimes.com more compelling, interactive and entertaining, providing many more reasons for online audiences to visit our site and stay longer. In the weeks ahead, we will be adding resources to achieve these critically important goals.”

My principal objection to most papers’ plans (however vague) to charge for their content isn’t religious, but practical: Too many papers I read have made such slashing cuts and do so little with the Web that they aren’t worth paying for. But I don’t feel that way about the Times. It’s not perfect — like many other news organizations, it’s weighed down by traditions that have curdled into dead weight. But its core coverage remains robust, and it’s become the leading Web innovator in digital journalism, with ambitious Web offerings that are deep and broad. The New York Times is already worth paying for — it doesn’t need a yearlong Manhattan Project to become so. Sulzberger and Robinson say they believe Times readers are willing to pay for it online. I think they’re right — in January 2010.

Things get more curious further down.

“Our metered model decision is a product of months of vigorous analysis and debate,” Sulzberger and Robinson write. “There was much we wanted to learn and know. We wanted to get a far better sense of NYTimes.com’s potential over the next decade. We also wanted to understand where the Web may be heading and how new technologies will affect customer online usage. We believed that only by carefully pursuing these and other important issues could we arrive at the best possible answer.”

Vigorous analysis and debate is good — particularly if it began with that magical starting question of “If we were starting today, would we do this?” Understanding where you’re going is good too — you fire the arrow at where the target’s going, not where it is now. But again: 2011? All those months of vigorous analysis and debate yielded nothing more than a vague decision about deploying a metered model in a year or so? It’s like the scene in The Two Towers where Treebeard tells the impatient hobbits that the Ents have reached a decision … Merry and Pippin aren’t orcs.

One thing folks who write blogs like mine have to guard against is confusing the needs of an industry with the responsibilities of a single company in that industry. Whatever the New York Times does will be closely watched and imitated by those who think they can follow suit, but the New York Times’ mission isn’t to save journalism — it’s to do what’s best for the New York Times. As someone who thinks about the overall industry, I have to be careful not to forget this.

But still … 2011? I can’t help but be disappointed. I’m disappointed for the overall industry, which desperately needs feedback on paywall experiments so that new experiments can be run. But I’m also disappointed for the Times itself. It’s better — and readier — than it seems to think.

Tuesday Reads: Paywall Plans at the New York Times, and More

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on January 19, 2010

The meta-news gods provide: While we all wait eagerly to see what the Apple tablet will look like, we get a debate over the New York Times’ apparent plans to institute some sort of paywall. (I believe Gabriel Sherman was first with the news, in New York Magazine.) But what kind of paywall? That question is taken up in smart posts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon and by Steve Outing.

I liked both posts in part because they didn’t waste my time rehashing religious wars about paid vs. free, choosing instead to take an experimental approach to the question of what kind of paywall makes sense. Salmon does all publishers a valuable service by advising them not to worry overmuch about readers who exploit loopholes. Some old-media types seem borderline obsessed with this, but Salmon sensibly notes that news organizations don’t fret overmuch about how easy it is to steal copies of the physical paper, which cost a lot more to produce and distribute. Salmon also suggests that the Times never actually lock out a reader — rather, hit them with increasing number of interstitials or some other way of encouraging payment without slamming the door completely shut.

Outing begins from the same point — both men dislike the Financial Times’s metered system — but moves from there to an excellent survey of possible ways to create revenue, from various subscription lengths to Kachingle. It’s a great starting point or reality check for news organizations pondering how to move forward.

No matter what their position on paid content, digital-news pundits all agree on the need for news organizations to experiment; these two posts reassure me there’s plenty of experimentation out there, at least for paywalls. Will one of those paths yield an answer that “saves” journalism? I doubt it — but at this early stage, salvation isn’t a realistic goal. It’s enough that we all learn things for the next iteration of experiments, and move quickly to put them in place.

* * *

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center proposes that news organizations stop forbidding or substantially restricting outside blogs by their writers, and instead encourage such pursuits. Why? Because, as I’ve often said, the smartest thing I ever did as a professional writer was start my own blog. The experience made me realize how important it is to think of what I do as a business, and taught me to edit myself, turning me into a columnist who was more entrepreneurial, open-minded, and wrote stronger, cleaner stuff. Properly supervised, outside blogs can channel young writers’ ambitions and help them train themselves as better journalists. In a time of shrinking budgets and business-model woes, that’s a benefit to any news organization.

Transparency Isn’t Just for Journalists

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on January 18, 2010

Over the weekend the New York Times’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, reviewed several recent articles in which the Times didn’t do enough to ask about or disclose people’s interest in events they were commenting about as expert sources. Former Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff advocated full-body scans in airports but didn’t volunteer that he’s a consultant to a company that makes scanners. Former diplomat Peter Galbraith wrote op-eds advocating for a strong and independent Kurdistan, but didn’t mention that he stands to make gobs of money from his ties to a Norwegian oil company operating there. And so forth.

“The cases raised timeless issues for journalists and sources about what readers have a right to know and whose responsibility it is to find it out or disclose it,” Hoyt writes, adding that “the ideal expert source is entirely independent, with no stake in an outcome. But in reality, the most informed sources often have involvements, which is why they know what they know. Readers are entitled to disclosure so they can decide if there is a conflict that would affect the credibility of the information.”

Yes, obviously — and from there, Hoyt explores where the fault lies for not making that information plain. Were the reporters negligent in not ferreting out those interests? Or were the sources deficient in not volunteering such information?

Hoyt decides the burden falls on both, which is both common sense and good journalistic practice, and I was amused to learn that reporter Eric Lipton has posted a reminder on his computer: “Ask if hired gun.” (I think we can assume he phrases the question differently.) But while reporters should of course doubt, and inquire, and inquire again, I think this is one case where the emerging standards of transparency actually help journalists.

The most interesting response to Hoyt’s questioning came from Chertoff. Asked about not volunteering his interest in full-body scanners, Chertoff said it was no secret that his risk-management firm, the Chertoff Group, had corporate clients and that it was up to the reporters who interviewed him to ask whether he had ties to the industry. “I always answer when I’m asked,” he told Hoyt. “But I don’t think it is my obligation to put myself in the head of a reporter.” Chertoff added that when he’s “affirmatively getting out there” — such as when he wrote a New Year’s Day op-ed for the Washington Post — he makes it his business to disclose such interests.

This always would have seemed disingenuous, but it strikes me as out-and-out dishonest according to the emerging standards of the online world.

The Web is changing the rules of journalism, and one of the biggest arguments is about objectivity and transparency for journalists. As I’ve explored before, social media is changing the way we interact with each other: We now expect to know far more about casual acquaintances and even strangers than we once would have, and — as is always the case in such situations — the objections of those who think the greater privacy of the past is worth preserving aren’t being rejected so much as technological change is rendering them irrelevant.

Journalists, believe it or not, are people too, and so this mammoth social change is forcing them to re-evaluate their traditional role as ostensibly neutral observers. Journalists can no longer dwell in a cloister, holding themselves aloof from discussion and revealing nothing about their personal lives — again, not because journalistic rules are changing, but because social rules are. That’s put a strain on the ideal of objectivity, and led to the enshrinement of transparency instead: Tell us who you are, what your interests are and what you believe, so that we can assess the information you’ve brought us accordingly and begin the process of dialogue and debate. (My take on transparency’s limits is here.)

Sources are affected by this change too. The two-way nature of the Web has blurred the lines between journalists, sources and the audience, and this sea change is generally seen as empowering sources and the audience while diminishing the importance of journalists. Which is basically correct, but doesn’t tell the whole story.

Sources can now break their own news, post their own versions of stories, and publish their own accounts of their dealings with journalists, complete with interview transcripts and even recordings. But they don’t get to have it both ways — with those opportunities comes the demand that they play by the same rules of transparency governing everybody else. (To borrow Cody Brown’s model, expert sources whose interests aren’t disclosed are part of the old, opaque magic box of news.) Which is where Chertoff’s “you didn’t ask” defense breaks down, and makes him look like a weasel. Transparency is the new black for Michael Chertoff, too.

Neither a Veal Calf Nor a One-Trick Pony Be

Posted in Cultural Change, The Journalist as Brand by reinventingthenewsroom on January 15, 2010

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.

The Pantagraph’s Time-Out, and Other Ways to Improve Comments

Posted in Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on January 5, 2010

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.

2010: There’s No Time Like the Present

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on January 4, 2010

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.

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