Reinventing the Newsroom

Stop Being a Hammer

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Fun With Metaphors, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on February 25, 2010

A long time ago, some clever person observed that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I doubt whoever said that was thinking about newspapers, but they could have been.

By and large, newspapers have seen new technological platforms as new ways to carry out their long-established mission of telling their readers what’s happening and what it means. And that’s a noble mission — like a lot of people, I heard it as a calling when I was a teenager and pursued it as a career. And for all the opportunities they’ve missed, newspapers have used those platforms to make big changes in what they do and how they do it. The Web let newspapers present their print material to a (potentially) world-wide audience and tell people the news without having to wait for presses and trucks. Blogs let newspapers update running stories in bits and pieces and bring a more conversational tone to the news. Social media (and before it email) let newspapers hand some of the work of distributing news to readers. Mobile is now letting newspapers reach readers who aren’t at work or at home.

In describing how these new tools have changed their mission, news organizations often say something along these lines: Our job is now to bring readers news and information whenever, wherever and however they need it. And, again, that’s a good, noble mission. But it’s still fundamentally the old mission: pushing news out to readers. What we risk missing is that the world has gotten much bigger than that. We have to see that our old mission is now part of something larger, figure out how we expand that mission to reflect this change, and change our culture so that we can meet its challenges and unlock its possibilities. What is that new mission? We’re still finding that out. But at the risk of sounding touchy-feely, it’s clear that it begins with less talking and more listening.

Not too long ago, readers had so few ways to talk with us that they hardly mattered. We’ve seen for a long time that that’s changing: The ability for anyone to publish is fundamental to the Web. But in fairness to news organizations, it’s only recently that the technology has matured to the point that conversation can really begin to flower.

News articles have had comments for a long time, and that’s good, but they’re almost inevitably tucked away at the bottom of the article or on a tab — making for a decidedly unequal relationship between writer and commenter. For all the immediacy of blogs, the same is true of them. And to a certain extent this imbalance is unavoidable. I find it incoherent to read something that’s annotated or commented in-line — the criticism begins before the message is complete. But it is an imbalance nonetheless. It makes conversation more difficult. It makes it hard for journalists to stop sending tablets of information down the mountain and occasionally hearing small voices from below.

But a beautiful thing about social media is that it inverts this. When a good conversation gets going on Facebook, whatever’s being discussed — a linked article, video, photo or just what’s on your mind — rapidly feels secondary to the upraised thumbs and the blue-boxed comments with their owners’ pictures attached. On Facebook, an item that doesn’t attract conversation somehow looks lonely. People on Twitter have very different levels of influence and “importance,” but the interface treats them like equals, and by doing that, it inspires conversation to jump those gaps. There’s no mountain to come down from.

I’m embarrassed by how thoroughly I struggle with this. I first learned my trade at print publications and went from apprentice to journeyman at the Web arm of a print paper, and I’ve been imprinted by that. I write columns and blog posts, and have to remind myself that the best measure of my writing’s success isn’t how good I think it is, but the conversation it inspires. I look at my Facebook activities and see too many links to my stuff that I want people to read and not enough evidence that I’m reading what other people are doing. I remind myself that Twitter isn’t just a new way to push out links, but a place to listen and learn. Every time I listen more than I talk, every time I leave a comment that leads to a conversation, I learn far more than when I stay aloof. Sometimes I feel like this will never come naturally, that I’ll always be looking for a mountain and tablets. But I’m trying. And the best tool I’ve found for changing my habits, however imperfectly I’ve done so, is social media.

And similarly, I think, it’s news organizations’ best chance to change their mission and see it as part of something larger. To see the news organization’s site not as a starting point for building a community, but as a potential part of a vibrant community that already exists. To make sure journalists understand — as the BBC made clear — that talking with readers is now a critical part of their jobs, and that they’re supported in making it one. To see that people outside our organizations and even our definition of journalism also make news, and treat it as such. To not just talk, but listen.

The news is no longer a bunch of nails; we need to stop being hammers.

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Test — Ignore

Posted in Uncategorized by reinventingthenewsroom on February 23, 2010

Apologies. This will be gone soon.

KM6V3BD86AVM

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I Chose This: Why the Web Is More Personal

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on February 23, 2010

Syracuse.com’s Brian Cubbison has posted a very good Q & A with Howard Owens of The Batavian, whose real-world experience at hyperlocal will be drawn on for years to come. It’s a solid read for Owens’ takes on advertising, working with local businesses and citizen journalism, but what really grabbed me was an exchange about digital media in general:

[T]he way people interact with digital media is much more personal.  Our digital devices are much more personal than a family-shared television, or even a newspaper, which has the feel of something everybody else is reading, too. It’s a mass media vs. personal media mindset.  So communication on personal media is more conversational, more of a mindset that communication is one-to-one, not one-to-many.

At first glance this flies in the face of the popular idea that the Web makes us fickle consumers of disposable content. You know the drill: We don’t read, unless it’s short articles formatted as cute lists, and we certainly don’t read important stuff because an in-depth story about the fighting in Marja is just a click removed from the latest starlet who forgot to wear underwear to the club.

I’ve always thought that idea was wrong, or more precisely that it carelessly assumed all Web readers behave like a few Web readers. But at the same time, I had to admit that yes, people generally read things on the Web with a certain impatience. I didn’t have to look further than my own surfing habits to find evidence that Web articles do best when they stick to a single topic, and that long-form pieces have to be really good to keep their audience. I tried to dig into how both of these things could be true in this column about writing for the Web that I wrote for the National Sports Journalism Center, arguing that understanding your audience and what it wants was far more important than any one-size-fits-all Web advice. A reader wanting to know what’s going on at noon on a workday needs to be served very differently than one looking for a better understanding of a complex issue on a Sunday morning.

I thought that column turned out OK, but had the nagging feeling that some key piece of the picture was still missing. I think it’s what Owens is talking about above. Reading a newspaper or watching a newscast, I’m interacting with a product that’s a bundle intended to appeal to a general audience, of which I’m a small part. I tailor that product for myself by choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But searching for information online is different. I’m looking for something that fits my needs as exactly as possible.

So what does that mean?

For one thing, bundled products have an uphill battle to engage me, because by their nature they’re tailored for general audiences and the starting point of engaging with them is winnowing out information that isn’t relevant. This is why the Web blows bundled brands to literal and figurative bits.

For another, I’m going to read ruthlessly. I’m looking for something specific, and if what I read isn’t it, I’ll stop reading and look elsewhere. If what I’m reading is what I’m looking for but the execution is lacking, I’m much more likely to quit part of the way through and look elsewhere, because there may be other sources that do a better job. This isn’t true in print: If I want to know what’s going on in Afghanistan and all I have is the print New York Times, the fact that the Times’ Afghanistan story wanders off into larger questions about nation-building is less likely to make me stop reading. It’s as close as I’m going to get, and I know it.

But there’s a flipside to this that I didn’t see until I read the Q&A with Owens. If what I find online is a fit, I’m going to engage with it more closely than I would engage with a print story or the right story on the news, because it feels like it was made exactly for me. I found it and I chose it. The ruthless abandonment and the close engagement are two sides of the same coin. I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.

In the digital world, every article or product starts as an uncertain prospect for holding my attention. It has to succeed, and quickly. Online, the battle is always uphill. But there’s potentially a greater reward. If that battle is won, if an online product succeeds, I will be more loyal to it. Because I chose it.

(Update: Read more thoughts from Howard Owens on personal journalism here and here.)

The Other End of the Telescope

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

Read this, from a Tuesday New York Times article by Katrina Heron, but replace “winery” and “wine” with “publisher” and “journalism”:

Rick Bakas, a panelist at the symposium, joined St. Supéry winery last August with a title heretofore unknown in the valley: director of social media.St. Supéry, which produces 100,000 cases a year, now has the requisite Facebook fan page, in addition to which Mr. Bakas has inaugurated Napa cabernet and pan-California virtual wine tastings via Twitter.

“Where wineries need to focus most is on signing up new wine club members through social media,” he said, rather than rely on cementing relationships with tourists who drive up to the tasting room.

Mr. Baker estimated that only about 20 percent of Napa wineries are on Facebook so far. Mr. Bakas, who last worked at a Web start-up that folded, said his spiel on new marketing techniques still meets with bewilderment and reticence in some quarters. “Wineries will say they say they can’t afford to learn about social media,” he said. “I tell them they can’t afford not to, and the economy is pushing the reluctant ones whether they want to or not.”

In short, Napa’s winemakers are in the throes of a classic market disruption. They can’t go backward, and the way forward is still largely unknown.

The only certainty is that they can’t stay where they are.

Granted, the wine industry isn’t trying to reverse having spent 15 years letting consumers quaff bottles without paying, but other than that I think the parallel holds. The potential wine club members are your valuable core loyalist readers, while the tourists are your drive-by readers. The suspicion of social media is the same, as is the struggle to realize it isn’t a fad but the way the world increasingly works. Read the rest and you’ll find a lot else that sounds familiar: falling sales, grumbling about middlemen, and scrappy new wineries selling cheap and bucking tradition.

The wineries that are succeeding are doing something that’s simultaneously very basic but agonizingly hard for established organizations with a lot of resources tied up in doing things an established way: They’re looking at things from the customer point of view. This is disorienting after you’ve done things a certain way for a long time and made assumptions about your customers that no longer hold true. It’s the view through the other end of the telescope. But once you get used to it, you see clearly that some of the things you do need to change.

This morning someone sent me Matt Legend Gemmell’s advice to hardware manufacturers looking to compete with the iPad — another excellent example of seeing things the other way around.

My own first reaction to the iPad was that the largely disappointed digerati were missing something basic — they’re not the iPad’s intended audience. The digerati saw the iPad as a neutered computer, while many consumers will see it as a superb way to read, play games and do some simple Web exploring without a lot of squinting or fussing with settings. For the digerati, “simple” plus “closed system” equals “bigger iPod Touch” and is a letdown; for Apple’s intended audience, “simple” plus “closed system” equals “bigger iPod Touch” and is great news.

Gemmell’s thinking along the same lines, warning those who’d compete with the iPad that thinking of their devices as tablet computers is a basic mistake. The iPad, he says, appeals to a new, neglected consumer segment, similar to how the Nintendo Wii appealed to a subset of potential videogame customers that hadn’t been considered an interesting target market.

Here’s Gemmell:

It’s difficult to get our heads around the fact that these non-technologically-savvy users can suddenly constitute a core market for a device, yet that’s the case here. Nintendo saw it, and Apple sees it too. It’s an uncomfortable realisation since these people are so unfamiliar to people like you, as hardware manufacturers, and me as a software engineer. This discomfort leads to a kind of understandable blindness, and more importantly can make us leave money on the table. The relative sales and demand figures for Wii vs PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 over the last several Christmases are indicative of that.

When competing with iPad, you have to realise that, to your new core market, tablets are not computers. There’s no such thing (to your customer) as a “tablet computer”; the very name reduces the likelihood they’ll buy it. The potential of the tablet is that it’s not even seen as a computing device. This is an incredible opportunity to expand into a new market, if you’ll only commit to that mindset.

If you’re thinking of a “tablet computer”, you’re only coming halfway, and you’re asking your customers to come further than they want to. My advice to you is: commit to the vision of a tablet, not a tablet computer, and you’ll have taken the first step towards claiming your share of the money which your new customers are ready and waiting to spend.

That’s exactly right. Gemmell’s looking through the customer end of the telescope, and noting how things look different.

Here’s a third example. John Bethune argues that journalists need to think more like marketers, examining another blogger’s question about why journalists have been generally worried about or unexcited by the changes ushered in by social media, and are making incremental changes while marketers are eagerly overhauling the basics of what they do. (Apologies for the Russian-doll effect of all this blogger commentary. Peril of the form.)

Bethune writes that “editors tend to have a craftsman’s view of their copy. It is a product that succeeds or fails on its own terms. It’s either good or bad. How it affects the reader, though important, is not the crucial test. You know when you’ve produced something good, even if no one ever reads it. For marketers, the only important question is how their copy affects readers. The measure of its success is simple: if it doesn’t produce leads, it doesn’t work. For editors, the copy is an end in itself. For marketers, it is a means to an end.”

Bethune is talking about marketers, not customers, but I think the point holds: Marketers are much better than journalists at understanding what customers want, because their continuing employment depends on it. Publishers and journalists have to learn to do that too. They can start by turning the telescope around.

(Tip of the cap to Joan Fry and Massimo Barsotti for interesting reads.)

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Zapruder, Holliday and Neda’s Witness

Posted in Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on February 16, 2010

One of the winners of the latest George Polk Awards is the anonymous Iranian bystander who filmed and shared video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was shot during a June protest in Tehran. “This video footage was seen by millions and became an iconic image of the Iranian resistance,” said John Darnton, the awards’ curator. “We don’t know who took it or who uploaded it, but we know it has news value. This award celebrates the fact that, in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social-networking sites to deliver news.”

My immediate reaction was that the Polk judges had made a good choice. But then I started thinking about the fact that the Neda footage isn’t the first time something filmed by a bystander has shaken the world and led us to think that something fundamental has changed.

This kind of user-generated content (yet another of the awful phrases digital journalism seems to be stuck with) isn’t new — Abraham Zapruder and George Holliday bore witness in similar ways, with similarly huge effects. Given that Zapruder shot his film in 1963 and Holliday shot his in 1991, user-generated content predates digital journalism itself considerably. So is what the Neda videographer did really different than what Zapruder and Holliday did?

I think it is, for a couple of reasons:

  • The Neda videographer required no special equipment.
  • There didn’t need to be someone in the right place at the right time.
  • There was no gatekeeper required for dissemination of the material.

The third point is the biggest change, but the first two are also important.

Montage of images from Zapruder film, Rodney King tape and Neda's death

The Zapruder film, Rodney King's beating, and Neda's death (Credits: Wikipedia, George Holliday/KTLA via Associated Press)

Let’s start with Abraham Zapruder. Zapruder made his film of the assassination of President Kennedy using a state-of-the-art movie camera. He was in the right place at the right time — at the perfect angle to capture the fatal shot. (There are other photos and other film footage from Dealey Plaza, all of it understandably of great interest to assassination researchers, but the Zapruder film stands alone in terms of importance.)

I was surprised to discover how quickly the Zapruder film was shared. Zapruder told a newspaper reporter what he had soon after the shooting, and was determined to get copies of the film into the hands of the Secret Service. The film was developed (as a custom order) by Eastman Kodak that same day, print and film rights were sold to Life magazine within two days, and black-and-white frames from the movie were published by Life within the week.

However, the movie itself was not disseminated beyond Life and government agencies. (This was partially at Zapruder’s insistence — he was horrified by the nightmarish scene he’d recorded and didn’t want it publicly shown.) In 1966, an assassination researcher engaged in a prolonged legal tussle with Time Inc. over the right to print frames from the Zapruder film in a book. The movie wasn’t shown in public at all until 1969, when it was shown in Jim Garrison’s New Orleans courtroom. Despite the Zapruder film’s status as a terrifying cultural icon — we all have the sequence ingrained in our brains, from the president lifting his arms to the horrible, inevitable fatal impact — it wasn’t shown on network television until 1975, 11 1/2 years after the assassination.

In 1991, George Holliday used his new Sony videocamera to film the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Like Zapruder, Holliday had a fairly specialized piece of equipment at the ready. And like Zapruder, Holliday was by chance in an excellent position from which to record what was happening.

Holliday’s film was also quickly shared — it was soon in the hands of Los Angeles TV station KTLA. Unlike the Zapruder film, it was very quickly disseminated world-wide. What’s interesting is that Holliday had trouble getting his movie shared. His first call was to the Los Angeles police (a detail that now leads us all to add our own string of amazed question marks and exclamation points); after they showed no interest, Holliday phoned CNN but couldn’t get anyone to take the call. KTLA was his third choice.

So how is the Neda footage different? First of all, it required no specialized gear, no hobbyist trying out a new piece of equipment. Digital cameras and cellphones that can shoot video are now very common and on their way to ubiquity. Because of that, for Neda’s death to be witnessed required no person in the right place at the right time — the numbers make it likely (and soon will make it inevitable) that someone will be in position to record what is happening.

There is other footage from Dealey Plaza, but apparently nothing from an angle similar to Zapruder’s. In 1991 as many as 20 other people were reportedly out on the balconies of Holliday’s apartment building, some of them yelling at the Los Angeles police — but it seems only Holliday had a camera. There is another known video of Neda’s death; I would be surprised if there aren’t others that haven’t been shared.

Neda’s death is already different than what happened with Zapruder and Holliday in the sense that (in Clay Shirky’s words) “more is different.” If Dealey Plaza happened today, many videos would be quickly available and minutely scrutinized for evidence. In 1991 the LAPD ignored 20 people screaming at them because they had no reason to suspect one of those people would be filming; today, they would anticipate such scrutiny. Those facts would already be enough to change how news is found and made.

But there is another difference: dissemination. Zapruder needed to negotiate with a gatekeeper to share his movie — in fact, he wanted one. Holliday needed a gatekeeper to do the same and had trouble finding one. Neda’s videographer needed no gatekeeper — in fact, he or she would have been taking a potentially life-threatening risk finding a means of sharing that footage in 1963 or 1991.

That’s radically different — it changes not just how news is found and made, but how it is shared and therefore defined. We have barely begun to understand what it will mean.

Update: The New York Times’s Brian Stelter interviews the still-anonymous man who took the Neda video, and provides more information about how the video was disseminated. Interesting stuff.

Friday Reads

Posted in Paid Content, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on February 12, 2010

To wrap up a long week, some recent reads that struck a chord with me:

New BBC Global News chief Peter Horrocks had a blunt message for the troops on social media, as reported by Mashable: “This isn’t just a kind of fad… I’m afraid you’re not doing your job if you can’t do those things. It’s not discretionary. … If you don’t like it, if you think that level of change or that different way of working isn’t right for me, then go and do something else, because it’s going to happen.” Many journalists have taken to social media, of course, and I’d hope that most soon realize the value of being part of a community, instead of becoming paralyzed by the potential pitfalls of doing their jobs in semi-public. But Horrocks seems to think — and I agree — that the time is past to consider social media an experiment or a hobby. Increasingly, it’s just the setting for all the familiar human things we do. News organizations have to be a part of that world, and the terms aren’t theirs to set. Rather, they must abide by the rules of the platforms their readers have chosen to make their own.

It’s not a secret that folks who write about the challenges of digital journalism have sharp divisions over the wisdom of various approaches to paid content. For my part, I think readers will pay for good, relevant content — but while I believe that wholeheartedly, I’ll qualify it all to pieces by noting that a) I think current payment schemes are too difficult (Dave McClure recently called this “wallet friction”), b) we still have a glut of commoditized content that drives down the value of journalism, and c) few of today’s digital papers are good enough to charge for.

Journalism Online sits at the crosshairs of that argument, but it seems to me that Gordon Crovitz offers a lot in this Q&A with eMedia Vitals that even paid-content doubters would find wise. Crovitz is practical and not dogmatic about paid content, noting that “we encourage publishers to wade slowly into the paid-content pool – rather than diving straight into the deep end – by beginning with conservative approaches that don’t put many page views at risk. For instance, a publisher employing a metered model might begin by allowing users to see 20 articles for free before being asked to pay. Since few readers would be challenged in that case, the publisher would likely lose very little traffic. By beginning conservatively and steadily testing lower thresholds, the publisher would find the optimal model for ‘freemium’ access.” And his advice is that “publishers must stop thinking of paid content as an either-or proposition. Rather than choosing between completely free access and full pay walls, our technology enables publishers to convert their most engaged readers to paid online subscribers without bothering casual visitors. This hybrid approach is key to finding the optimal mix of traffic and subscription revenue online.”

Finally, two for the clip-and-save files: In this older post that recently crossed my radar, Jay Rosen offers 20 potential ways to subsidize the production of news, starting with government subsidies and acknowledging the likes of live events and premium memberships on the way to ending with subsidies by religious groups. (It’s not so crazy — the Christian Science Monitor is supported this way.) Rosen’s list sidesteps paid content, as that asks readers to pay directly for the cost of content production. Finally, Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a list of strategies to help news organizations provide value to and create profitable relationships with local advertisers. If I were running a news organization, these two documents would help me fill up my whiteboard and get down to serious, productive discussions.

Happy long weekend, everybody!

An Announcement

Posted in Uncategorized by reinventingthenewsroom on February 10, 2010

I’m very pleased to announce that EidosMedia has agreed to sponsor Reinventing the Newsroom.

EidosMedia is a Milan-based maker of innovative editing-and-publishing platforms for news organizations. I first worked with them in my last couple of years at The Wall Street Journal Online as part of a team tasked with replacing Dow Jones’s editorial systems and rethinking its organizational hierarchy. After I left the Journal, I joined EidosMedia and was their Web CMS evangelist for more than a year, during which time I launched this blog.

In addition to the sponsorship agreement, I may serve as a consultant for EidosMedia on individual projects.

The rules for this blog remain the same as when I was an EidosMedia employee: The opinions expressed here are my own and not those of EidosMedia, and I will comment without fear or favor.

How to Get Paid: Decrease Wallet Friction, Think Apps

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content, Social Media, Social Search, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on February 9, 2010

So late last week I read Dave McClure’s slightly unhinged rant about subscriptions, and within a couple of paragraphs I started laughing. Not in that “Gee, anyone with an opposable thumb can now publish” way, but in that “This is beyond awesome” way. Posts like McClure’s remind me of why I love the Web, particularly the way it constantly brings new ideas and voices to my door that change the way I think. When I wasn’t laughing, I was nodding my head. First once, then twice, then lots of times.

McClure would benefit from an editor, he loves to swear, and his post reads a bit like it was composed while jumping on a trampoline, but don’t let that put you off: His thoughts on subscriptions, Web ads, transactions and passwords make for smart, bracing reading. I highly recommend getting your McClure direct and full-octane at the link above, but here’s my gloss anyway:

Web 2.0 companies have foolishly tried to follow Google and Yahoo’s lead in emulating ad-driven business models, wasting a decade trying out inefficient revenue models. McClure thinks that will change, in a rather dramatic way: “The default startup business model for 2010 and beyond will be subscriptions and transactions (e-commerce, digital goods).” He adds that “gradually we are discovering that the default revenue model on the internet should probably be the simplest one — that is: basic transactions for physical or digital goods, and recurring transactions (aka subscriptions) for repeat usage.” Or, as he then puts it more pungently, “Get Dem Bitches to *PAY* You, G.”

So what’s the problem with that? McClure isn’t interested in the ideology of free vs. paid or the link economy or Googlejuice. He does mention the problem of the penny gap (i.e. the hardest part of charging isn’t getting readers to pay you a certain price, but getting them to pay you anything at all), but then moves on — a bit too quickly, I thought — to “wallet friction.”

Here, he looks back to his time at PayPal, where the biggest customer-service problem by far was users not remembering their passwords. “Bingo, way to create the biggest HateStorm in Internet History: make it super simple for people to make their payment method unusable by simply forgetting their password,” he writes, adding that “PayPal was one of the classic stories of viral growth, however in this instance we also experienced viral growth in customer service: at one point more than 2 in 3 employees worked in customer service. And I’m guessing somewhere between 10-20% of first-time customers never used the service again, primarily because they forgot their password.”

So what passwords do people remember? The ones for services they use all the time — such as social networks, email and instant messaging, and sites for buying games, music and entertainment. From there, he reaches his conclusion: “In 2015, the default login and payment method(s) on the Web will be Facebook Connect, Google Gmail, or Apple iTunes.”

As I said, I would have liked to hear more from McClure on how we get across the penny gap. But I like that his examination of the problem focuses on consumer behavior, industry trends and practical issues, rather than supposedly immutable laws of the digital world. News organizations face a lot of problems that won’t be solved quickly or easily: There is a glut of commoditized content on many subjects, much of the content we produce isn’t good enough to ask anyone to pay for, and we have surrendered or drifted from our central place in our communities. Working through those issues will involve a lot more pain than what we’ve already experienced. But I don’t believe that it’s impossible for us to get paid for content that works for our readers, or to be rewarded if we can win back a valued place in our communities.

* * *

For another take on how we get paid, MTV Networks product manager Maya Baratz advises old-media companies to start thinking of themselves as apps.

Baratz characterizes apps as “not only allowing, but thriving off of, having your content live elsewhere” as opposed to platforms, which fuel their growth by attracting an audience to a destination. As an example of the former, take social games that don’t try to draw in users to a new site, but exist where the users already are, such as on Facebook. Her advice to news organizations is to turn the paywall argument on its head and get revenue through bits of content as they spread.

This gets at one of the central dilemmas of charging for content: By and large, news organizations seem to agree that paywalls need to be leaky to let content spread and be discovered through sharing and search. For instance, the New York Times has indicated that when its paywall arrives sometime this global epoch, articles found through sharing and search won’t count against readers’ monthly counts. (More on this here.) That seems wise, but the more we find content this way, the less paywalls will contribute to news organizations’ bottom lines. Combine Baratz’s approach with McClure’s decreased wallet friction and perhaps there’s a way forward that will remain viable as social media becomes more and more important.

Provided we can hurtle the penny gap, of course.

* * *

On a rather different note, my latest column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center looks at the growing use of social media by athletes, and explores how it may change sportswriting as “digital natives” become star athletes. As is often the case with my NSJC columns, I think these questions are relevant to more than sportswriters. Sports, as part of the Web’s old-growth forest, is an excellent place to track changes that will soon impact the rest of journalism.

Oh, and my fervent wish for a New Orleans Saints win came true! Now if only something could be done about the Mets….

Back to Basics on Public Notices

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on February 5, 2010

Yesterday at Nieman Journalism Lab, Mac Slocum offered a roundup of the arguments for requiring governments to continue printing public notices in newspapers instead of doing so online, summarizing the case as made by newspaper-industry lobbyist Tonda Rush. I commented quickly (and a bit viscerally) — and then found myself coming back to why, exactly, I’d gotten so upset.

Granted, the pro-printing arguments seemed pretty weak, and sleeping on them hasn’t exactly changed my mind.

The first pro-print argument is that there would be startup costs associated with moving public notices to the Web, and the cost-savings wouldn’t be very much — 1% to 2% of county and municipal budgets at best, Rush says. The startup costs seem like a red herring. According to Slocum, 40 states have proposed letting local governments opt for the Web, only to be opposed furiously by newspaper lobbyists. I have a certain reflexive cynicism about government efficiency, but I doubt that local governments would be clamoring to put public notices online if the startup costs were self-defeatingly high. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear that my county had figured out a relatively painless way to save 1% to 2% of its budget.

The second argument is that print has a permanence online doesn’t. It’s at least interesting to hear this claim unaccompanied by rhapsodies about the crinkle of paper and the clink of spoons at the breakfast table, but beyond that I’m unmoved. By this measure, why not record public records on stone tablets, as a safeguard against some world-wide conflagration that would turn our archived paper and microfilm to drifts of ash and sad little curls of plastic? A secondary argument is that litigation favors iron-clad documentation, and the print model is better for those purposes. That’s a better case, but I’m rarely persuaded when the reason to keep something boils down to an inefficient model that hasn’t kept up with the times. Change the model!

The third argument is that you can’t trust the government to publish and maintain official records. Frankly, here either somebody’s tin-foil hat has fallen off or people are being awfully disingenuous. If you subscribe to this paranoid mindset, does the idea of newspapers as watchdogs make things any better?

But let’s back up. Let’s go back to the question that should always be asked when adapting to the Web: If we were starting today, would we do this? This time, though, let’s not think about it from a newspaper-revenue point of view. Rather, let’s think about it from a public-records point of view.

We want public records to be official, to be visible and to be discoverable later on. And we want accessing them to be as easy as possible for as many people as possible.

OK, so what’s the best way to accomplish this? We might say, “I think the best way is to pay newspaper publishers to run these notices in extremely small type to the right of this week’s listings of acoustic guitar players appearing in coffee shops and below the syndicated parenting advice.” But it seems more likely that we’d say, “Let’s put these public notices in a database so they’re searchable and publish them to the Web, so interested citizens can find them whenever they like with a couple of mouse clicks and a bit of typing.” (And while we’re on the subject, why on earth aren’t news organizations making use of their head start to create these databases and Web sites themselves? Did we really learn nothing from Craigslist and Monster.com?)

And now we get to what made me mad.

Newspapers’ champions often tout the press as an engine of a healthy democracy, and papers as having a civic mission. And I mostly agree with that stuff. (Minus the “paper” part of it, anyway.) But if you’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk. Doesn’t making public records as visible and searchable as possible improve the health of democracy too? Newspapers rarely look better than when they’re taking powerful industry groups to task for letting their own bottom lines obstruct the public good. How is that not exactly what’s happening here?

I believe in news organizations having a sense of civic mission. I don’t think that’s naïve or corny or out of date. But if your sense of civic mission only extends as far as the boundaries of your own parochial interests, it’s not worth very much.

Conversation Is Free-Range — Quit Building Corrals

Posted in Communities, Going Local, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on February 3, 2010

By now news organizations know they have to be aggressive about social media — it’s a vehicle for distributing their content, commenting, criticizing and otherwise discussing it, and reusing it in various ways. And social media is a chance to rebuild ties with an audience that’s now so busy talking back and creating content of its own that the word hardly seems to fit.

But as is often the case with big opportunities, the question of how to dive in can be paralyzing. And I think that paralysis causes too many news organizations to choose the wrong social-media starting point. Social media is seen as another channel for disseminating news. It’s viewed as a mutation of discussions or article comments. It’s eyed as a new promotional vehicle. And none of those approaches is wrong, for social media can be any or all of those things. But thinking about social media in such narrow ways misses the bigger picture, and starting one’s social-media efforts from such points of view helps ensure that discussions will continue to be about trees, and not the forest.

Social media can seem new and complicated, but at its heart it’s old and simple. Before too long, it will be so woven into our daily lives that it will be invisible and the term will be generally meaningless. Which is as it should be: The underlying technologies and individual platforms aren’t nearly as important as what we do with them. And what is that? Interesting new things, to be sure, but mostly what we’ve always done: We talk. We ask questions and give advice and gossip and trade interesting stories and argue and try to sell each other stuff and be inspiring and be petty and self-promote and help each other and fall in love and pick fights and discover new ideas and seek refuge in old ones. And by doing all that, we create new bonds between people and reinforce existing ones. Whether we’re talking about fan pages or Twitter, it comes down to talking and listening.

Conversation doesn’t just happen in specific places, but everywhere. Yet in approaching social media, news organizations tend to see their role as starting conversations, or providing settings for them. On the surface, this seems logical: News organizations already host discussions. Playing host to conversations reinforces news organizations’ sense of self-worth, and seems to promise greater control over them. And starting conversations feels like a fit for news organizations’ desire to serve their communities.

All of these are logical or laudable impulses. But that playbook stopped working a generation ago, as newspapers ceded their place as community centers and connectors. The conversation doesn’t need to be restarted, for it never stopped — it just needs to be joined. The community doesn’t need to be built — it’s already there. Instead of thinking of themselves as the potential seeds or centers of communities, news organizations need to see themselves as parts of larger communities that already exist, and find roles within them.

How can we do this? For starters, consider Twitter lists. It’s great to have a Twitter list of staffers, but it’s much more powerful to have a Twitter list of leaders in various communities of interest, and then integrate those lists within your site as low-maintenance, real-time news feeds. For examples, check out the Texas Tribune’s Tweetwire, or the ideas in this Mashable post. Now, think how many such communities your average metro paper could dip into and display. Every local sports franchise can have a feed that includes the news organization’s own sportswriters, other news organizations’ writers, smart bloggers, players and club officials. By putting together a feed that includes music writers and members of local bands who tweet, you’ve created a nightlife guide and an interesting collective musicians’ diary. Politicians and civic leaders should have their own feed, of course — joined by City Hall reporters and spiced up by the tweets of community gadflies. And so on.

Such feeds are fundamentally out of control? That’s OK — so’s conversation itself. Readers are increasingly sophisticated consumers of content — they’ll understand. (And you can always remove any truly bad actors from your feeds.) These feeds could direct readers to your rivals? So what — you’ll get more credit as a gatekeeper than you will by pretending your rivals don’t exist.

Such efforts are just the beginning, and only one way of joining conversations and communities. They’re early experiments — but experiments that begin with the right starting point, and so will lead to much more. Conversations and the communities engaged in them are free-range — we need to resist the impulse to create corrals.

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