Reinventing the Newsroom

A New Focus on Relevance

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on March 31, 2010

At Skeptic Geek, Mahendra Palsule takes an interesting look at the Web’s evolution from a numbers model to a relevance model. Clicks, page views and numbers of ads displayed are falling out of favor, being replaced as key metrics by interactions, returning visitors and time spent on site.

Palsule brings this discussion back to Facebook: “The success of Facebook and why it has garnered over 400 million users is because it grew on a base of real-life friends who were relevant in the users’ social circle. Other networks have failed to challenge Facebook partly because they have tried to go the other way around – from numbers to relevance.”

This wrong-way-around approach seems to fit news organizations, too: They spent years chasing empty traffic numbers at the expense of true engagement, and are now stuck trying to seine value from a sea of near-worthless ads users have been trained to ignore.

This goes right back to my conversation in the fall with Belden Interactive’s Greg Harmon. The first place Harmon tried to make sense of Web traffic numbers was the Billings (Mont.) Gazette. At the time, the Gazette was reporting monthly unique visitors of about 400,000 — curious given a print circulation of around 50,000 and estimated total readership of around 80,000. Harmon looked at the metrics, crunched some numbers (see the post for more detail) and concluded that average monthly traffic was really around 40,000, and half of that traffic came from Billings.

Harmon’s conclusions were met by cheers from the ad-sales folks. Why were they cheering having seen their world shrink by 90%? Because now they had a real number to take to the local businesses that were their potential advertisers, and it was part of a message that made sense for them. Those 400,000 monthly uniques might have seemed impressive, but they were somewhere between useless and off-putting for potential advertisers: The measurement seemed faulty, and even if it were accurate, what were your chances of selling a car to an audience that mostly wasn’t local, wasn’t engaged, or wasn’t either? The Gazette’s problem, writ large, became the problem of the entire industry: Big, amorphous pools of readers were impressive to corner offices but not to local businesses, which led to big, amorphous advertising, which was generally irrelevant, which commoditized page views, which drove low CPMs.

Now, more and more news organizations are realizing the folly of chasing big, empty numbers. There’s a useful convergence of realizing those big, empty numbers helped drive a ruinous business model and looking anew at how content is shared and distributed via social media.

Look at this memo from Gawker Media: “While most people track Gawker Media’s influence via reach metrics like pageviews or uniques, we’ve been quietly tending a metric that explains something more important — our depth.” Gawker is seeking to measure how many visits to its sites begin with “a declared intent to visit” — entering a Gawker property into a browser or searching for one by name. (I like “asking for us by name” better as a description, but same idea.) Gawker sees this as a way to measure audience loyalty, and reports that a third of audience sessions now begin with someone asking for Gawker by name, up from a quarter of sessions three years ago.

The memo then nails the issue and the lesson to be learned: “These recurring visitors weave content engagement and advertising ROI into our communities. And consequently, this core readership is the audience segment for whom a publisher’s halo is brightest and for whom brand marketing is most effective.”

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Back to the Future With the iPad

Posted in Digital Experiments, IPad by reinventingthenewsroom on March 24, 2010

Back in January, Judy Sims pleaded with editors and publishers to keep the print guys away from the process of developing apps for Apple’s forthcoming iPad:

The format and shape of the iPad feels comfortable and familiar to print guys.  And for that reason, they will think they know how to design for it despite having little or no digital product experience. They will want to lay out pages the way they do in a newspaper or magazine.  They will want to charge per article or figure out a subscription model that can be included in their ABC numbers.  They will want to keep reader interaction, community and linking to a minimum.

In short, they will kill any chances of real innovation.  Don’t let them do it.

Sims’s plea was for editors and publishers to put together a team of digital innovators and send them away for a few weeks, without any rules, to create something that “just might blow your socks off.”

Judging from the iPad concepts dribbling out from various publishers (check out this slideshow from paidContent), it seems pretty clear that Sims isn’t going to get her wish. Most of the concepts I’ve seen are heavily printcentric, seeking to use the iPad’s screen and form factor to replicate the magazine experience in ways that haven’t worked particularly well on screens until now. Yes, a photo or bit of text may lead the viewer into a slideshow or video or give them something to interact with, but you’re recognizably within a slightly reimagined magazine and a controlled environment.

It’s a potential trend that worries Reuters’ Felix Salmon. Last week, he wrote that Wired’s iPad strategy, as seen at South by Southwest, “is both the obvious one and the sensible one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” From what Salmon saw, Wired won’t include Wired.com stories on the iPad, will return to holding print content back from the Web, and will generally mark a retreat from Web principles: “The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control — the exact opposite, really, of the internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience.”

Salmon notes that this is good from media-company and brand-advertising perspectives, as it offers a better chance to recreate magazines’ glossy ads and re-attract the dollars that come with them. But from an open-Web perspective, “the Wired iPad app marks a clear retreat back towards what were once known as walled gardens.”

I think Salmon’s right — the first wave of iPad apps are going to be a return to walled gardens, fueled by a renewed sense of control that designers feel they surrendered in the Web era. What’s really interesting will be what comes after that.

I don’t think the slicker, more-controlled formats ushered in by the iPad will necessarily be a bad thing. As I wrote in my initial reaction to the iPad’s unveiling, the device will create a different, largely new experience than that offered by the Web or smartphones — for the first time, we’ll really be able to “lean back” with a properly sized screen while reading something digital, watching a movie or casually surfing. I think that will prove enormously appealing to a lot of people, and create a model that could have staying power.

Moreover, most magazines haven’t worked very well on the Web. A good magazine is a vibrant, lush experience, but it’s also a finite one, and that’s satisfying in its own right. You can read an entire issue of the New Yorker or the Atlantic and feel like you’ve accomplished something. For all its wonders, the Web doesn’t offer that — rather, it replaces it with a vague sense of insecurity. On the Web you never run out of things to read; you just run out of time.

Given all this, I won’t be surprised to see some magazines stick with a closed, controlled iPad presentation. And I won’t be surprised to see some of those publishers focus on iPad presentations at the expense of the Web.

But those closed presentations will compete with the Web anyway, even within the iPad. And this is where a lot of the iPad concepts I’ve seen get awfully thin. With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them. Quick will trump lush; free will trump controlled.

How publishers address this problem at a time in which they’re diverting resources to the iPad will be interesting to watch. I bet some will abandon the Web, or retreat to using it for shovelware versions of their titles, seeing the iPad and print as a better product mix. (Correspondingly, a lot of Web sites will go through a phase of making lousy, static-feeling iPad apps.) A brave few publishers will take Sims’s advice and create something interesting that feels new. But not many of them. And meanwhile, the real innovation will come from new publishers who approach the iPad without the cultural and business-model baggage of the print or the Web.

We won’t really know where we’re headed until we’ve seen a few iterations of this process. This is where I disagree partially with Sims — I don’t think the iPad will kill real innovation so much as it will delay it. And this is where I think what Salmon worries about will prove true, but a passing phenomenon. By the time a few cycles of iPad development have run, we’ll have seen some iPad hits, some interesting misses and a lot of dull missteps. Lessons will have been learned by those interested in learning them, and the device itself will have gained new capabilities. That’s when we’ll see some of those Walled Gardens 2.0 reopen — alongside ones that decide to stay shut.

Facebook and the Future of Refrigerator Journalism

Posted in Communities, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on March 22, 2010

Last month I wrote about how finding information and choosing what to read makes the Web a more personal medium, an idea that came to me after reading a Q&A with Batavian publisher Howard Owens. In the comments, Roy Peter Clark raised a good point that’s nagged at me ever since:

I want to add one definition to the mix, what Michael Gartner once described as “refrigerator journalism.” I love that term because it describes how readers in real geographic communities respond to the newspaper. Just ask yourself this question: What, if anything, would I clip out of the newspaper, and attach to the refrigerator door? Usually, it is something very personal, perhaps a wedding photo, obituary, a feature about someone you know. In our case, it was soccer and theater stories and photos about the girls.

Emily, who is now 33, and eleven of her teammates from high school were just elected to that school’s Hall of Fame. When we arrived for the ceremony, many of the parents brought in newspaper clippings they had saved for 18 years. These were precious objects, almost sacramentals, that defined the lives of our family in this specific community.

I have not seen anything yet online that substitutes for this experience.

It’s a good point — and I love Gartner’s term “refrigerator journalism.” Let me consider it in two parts.

In one sense, I disagree with Roy. On Facebook, that high-school soccer story can immediately be shared. There’s no need to make copies and put them in the mail to faraway relatives or old friends, which is the kind of thing most of us wish we’d do but that generally gets lost in the tumble and churn of daily life. By taking the fuss and friction out of sharing and making it real-time, Facebook is in many ways a better refrigerator. As such, it’s enormously valuable in reinforcing real-world community, particularly now that it’s becoming fairly representative of more and more real-world communities. On Facebook, strong ties are naturally and easily reinforced, and weaker ties can be strengthened by posting photos and sharing articles and commenting and liking and just reading status updates.

In some ways, Facebook has taken away a chunk of news organizations’ old role as glue for their communities, just as Craiglist has snapped up classifieds, and various local blogs and now services such as Foursquare are taking a bite out of event listings. But that battle was lost long ago. Rather than mourning what could have been, news organizations should see Facebook as complementary to their role in the community: The news organization supplies raw material in terms of stories or events or photos (some of which may not be intended for the paper or the Web site — witness the Pocono Record’s side business), and the community distributes those stories, events and photos through social media. (How to preserve brand loyalty and pay the bills, of course, is another question, and a pretty crucial one.)

But while Facebook is wonderful for sharing, it’s lacking something: The sacramental aspect Roy talks about isn’t there. The things we share on Facebook are soon swept away by newer things and lost from view. They’re part of a rich stream of shared experience, but with the exception of photo albums, most of that shared experience is carried off into the realm of “older posts” and effectively lost. Our real-world fridge is like a lot of people’s — magnetic letters hold down a mess of to-do lists, old notes, amusing junk-mail misfires, cartoons, drawings by our son and of course photos, some of which date back to 1990. It’s a rich record of our family. So is Facebook, but there the richness can only be seen over time. It’s like everything gets cleared off the fridge and replaced every 18 hours.

Is this impermanence part and parcel of Facebook? I don’t think it has to be.

When I was at The Wall Street Journal, I had a lot of discussions with the site’s developers about how to make newsroom or business-side projects a reality. I was pretty realistic about what could or couldn’t be done, which is why I kept being involved in such conversations. But within those bounds, I became mildly notorious for assuming anything I could think of would be straightforward and quick to implement, which was simultaneously a compliment to our developers and a blithe assumption about their priorities. Eventually the developers would smile and say that whatever I wanted was “just a small matter of programming,” a bit of shorthand that served as a gentle but a still pointed warning.

Remembering that, I’ll still say that it seems like just a small matter of programming for Facebook to address the lack of the sacramental. Why not let readers tag items as keepers, items for a wall of fame, or whatever? They could even call it the digital fridge. Heck, Twitter is far more ephemeral and it lets you tag tweets as favorites. (It’s possible this already exists for Facebook — if so, please let me know in the comments.)

When Facebook began as a service for college students, the idea of saving something for years would have seemed bizarre — college kids don’t think that far backwards or forwards, for which they should be profoundly grateful. But now that Facebook is a Web front-end for college kids and teens and young professionals and parents and grandparents alike, its time horizons have changed, and it could fulfill all the functions of refrigerator journalism. My own family has a rich history on Facebook, one marked by favorite notes and links and pictures and comments and exchanges that I’d like to record for posterity. To do that, I could use Fridge 2.0.

When Social Media Says Too Much

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2010

It seems like every time a media organization releases a social-media policy, it gets pilloried by digital-journalism thinkers for telling its writers what they can’t do instead of making suggestions about what they could do. I’ve piled on a time or two myself.

But next time one of these memos makes the rounds, I’m going to hold my fire for a bit. Social media has remade my life, in ways I find gratifying and exciting and fascinating. But as I realized recently, it’s also eroded some boundaries that were put up for a reason.

Wait Until Dark image

Damn, forgot about the scrobbling.

Last week I hopped on a train for an overnight trip to write a freelance story. As per usual, I was posting Facebook status updates and Tweeting away the whole time. If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook, you knew I was headed for Providence, R.I. If you follow me on Twitter, you learned that I was eating old-school Italian on Federal Hill. And if you’re a friend of mine on Foursquare, you knew I was eating at Andino’s.

While I never stated explicitly where I was going (my formative years at The Wall Street Journal have given me an almost-visceral aversion to discussing work in progress), I knew I’d said enough for some people who know me or what I write about to figure out what I was up to. I thought about it, but I wasn’t too concerned: It wasn’t a sensitive assignment, and nobody was going to scoop me. So my guard was down a bit.

But I hadn’t realized the other ways in which I was telegraphing what I was doing — and revealing more than I meant to.

I recorded a couple of group interviews and came back home to Brooklyn. Now, I needed to transcribe the interviews. I decided to use Mechanical Turk, the Amazon service — an experiment I’d wanted to try since learning the folks at Nieman Journalism Lab use it to cheaply transcribe their video interviews. (Another reason to use Mechanical Turk: Having the interviews transcribed by a traditional service or doing the job myself would have eaten up so much money or time that my assignment would no longer pay for itself.)

Using Mechanical Turk meant putting up my recorded interviews online. That gave me pause, but I figured there was security in obscurity — the sheer volume of such material would mean nobody would notice those files, and they’d be gone soon enough. Then I realized the file names I’d assigned to the MP3s of my interviews included the company name. Oops. Fortunately, I changed them before posting them for Mechanical Turk’s transcribers. Lesson learned, I thought.

Well, not quite. I’d offered enough money for transcription services that a Twitter account dedicated to Mechanical Turk opportunities broadcast the job, complete with my name. Then I needed to reboot my Mac, and when it came back up Last.fm started demanding attention about something or other.

Put a sock in it, Last.fm, I thought. Hey, wait a minute.

When the MP3s of the interviews still had their full, identifying filenames, they’d played through iTunes as I reviewed them. My iTunes is connected to Last.fm. And what I’m listening to — MP3s of interviews, for example — automatically gets “scrobbled” to my Last.fm profile. I was dumbstruck — it was like stumbling across the social-media equivalent of the light inside the refrigerator in “Wait Until Dark.”

I still have a lot to learn about social media, the way software and digital services are increasingly connected to our identities, and the fact that those identities are increasingly public. (We all do. Anyone who says otherwise either isn’t learning or is trying to fleece you.) But I’m not a newbie, either. And for better or worse, my Journal background has lent me a certain caution in thinking about how these new services intersect journalism.

Neither of these things mattered during my recent trip. I wound up revealing far more about what I was doing than I thought I was. As far as I can tell, no harm was done. But if I were covering something sensitive, or working a fiercely competitive beat, I could have created a real mess for myself and my news organization.

I still think news organizations need to embrace social media. I still believe greater transparency will make readers see news providers as more trustworthy. And I still would advise reporters to step outside of their cloister and engage with readers. And I’m not saying social-media tools don’t work — I leaked what I was doing because they do, and I’m comfortable with them.

But from now on, I’ll have more sympathy for news organizations when they express doubts and worries about those tools. What makes “Wait Until Dark” frightening isn’t that Audrey Hepburn forgets the refrigerator light. It’s realizing that you’d forget it too.

Why Paywalls Are Fighting the Last War

Posted in Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 15, 2010

Reading through sections of the new Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media report, I had an unhappy thought about paywalls: Even if you believe, as I do, that consumers will pay for news online in certain circumstances, the news industry is fighting the last war in its current approach to the problem.

First, the grim news — and it’s almost unrelentingly grim. Many of the numbers in the report ought to come with a warning about reading them while drinking hot coffee, holding a sharp object or taking certain medications. Consider the following:

  • Newspapers saw a 26% drop in ad revenue in 2009, and a three-year drop of 43%.
  • Daily circulation has fallen 25.6% since 2000.
  • Since 2000 the industry has shed $1.6 billion in annual reporting/editing capacity, or 30% of the industry. Meanwhile, over the last four years, $141 million in non-profit money has flowed to new-media efforts.

The metrics about online news consumption aren’t any cuddlier:

  • 90% of newspaper-industry funds come from print sources.
  • Only 35% of Americans surveyed say they have a favorite news sites online — and only 19% of those people (7% overall) say they’d keep visiting that site if a paywall went up.
  • Only 21% of respondents say they rely primarily on one destination for news online.

As I’ve said before with Pew, while admiring the report greatly I wonder how much the methodology is playing a role here. For instance, the question about favorite news sites may undermine the impact of news found through search and particularly through social search. But the first of the report’s “major trends” certainly feels right to me: “As we learn more about both web economics and consumer behavior, the unbundling of news seems increasingly central to journalism’s future. … Online, it is becoming increasingly clear, consumers are not seeking out news organizations for their full news agenda. They are hunting the news by topic and by event and grazing across multiple outlets.”

When I was a kid, there was one daily newspaper in my house (the New York Times) and one national newscast (the CBS Evening News). My parents were loyal to them, and I inherited that loyalty from there. But that world is long gone. My wife still reads the New York Times in print on Saturday and Sunday, childcare willing, but I rarely pick up the physical paper. I read a lot of Times material online (and I’d pay for it), but I also read material from a blizzard of other sources, many of which didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. When I’m searching for specific information, I pick and choose what to read not based on loyalty, but on my own experiences with news organizations, prejudices about them and my on-the-fly judgments about what I’m reading. When I’m curious and receptive to new things to read, the greatest influence is what my friends and peers are reading. As for TV, I can’t remember the last time I watched a discrete newscast.

This isn’t just the old print/Web sea change. The very concept of a destination Web site is increasingly out of date — in hindsight, the idea of destination Web sites feels like the old print and TV model crammed into a Web box. The rise of effective search mortally wounded that model, and the arrival of social search is providing the coup de grace.

Yet paywalls and meters are all based around that model. They’re weapons (or defenses, if you prefer) for fighting the last war. Pew’s findings will be widely seen as blowing a hole in paywall hopes, but I think their real import is a bit different: They reveal that the core assumption of paywalls is flawed, because destination sites are a thing of the past.

In the age of unbundling the essential unit of news is not the site or the section but the article. (This isn’t necessarily the way things should be — witness the SXSW discussion of context, and efforts to “lift” the essential unit to become the topic.) Publishers have to think about their sites as they are mostly likely to be encountered: as single articles discovered through search or social search or sharing. That’s your front door, not the section front or the home page.

But that same thinking must extend to how to pay for the news.

I remain stubbornly insistent that paywalls aren’t doomed because of consumer attitudes about paying for news. I think those attitudes are more subject to change than you might think. Yes, I read Pew’s findings. Yes, I know we still have a glut of largely commoditized news. I think the news industry, sadly, is going to have to get a lot smaller to balance out the imbalance of supply and demand — and get a lot better at providing more relevant, valuable and engaging news while it gets smaller. That transformation has been brutal and is going to get worse.

But despite believing people will pay for news, I agree with the skeptics that paywalls are doomed in their current form — because they’re built around a destination-site concept that fewer and fewer readers care about. Rather than paywalls, we need paytags — some way for payment information to travel with a given piece of content as it’s discovered through search and sharing and, sure, the occasional stroll through a destination site. Publishers need a way to substantially decrease or eliminate wallet friction, memorably discussed by Dave McClure. They need to reject the platform model in favor of the app model that lets their content thrive elsewhere, as Maya Baratz has written. They need to find their way across the dreaded penny gap.

Paywalls won’t do that. Subscriptions won’t do that. The only thing that might work is a metered plan — and one that works across a huge number of publishers.

That’s an enormous challenge legally, culturally and technologically. I know that. But it’s an impossible one if publishers continue to fight the last war.

To Burn the Boats, or Not?

Posted in Cultural Change, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on March 10, 2010

Over the weekend, Marc Andreessen lit up the Twitterverse with his advice for established media companies: “Burn the boats.”

The comment, made to Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch, refers to the legend that when Cortés’s expedition landed in Mexico in 1519, he told his men to burn the boats, ensuring that they would have to push forward into the unknown instead of thinking about going back. In Andreessen’s view, that’s what “old media” need to do: see the print business model as a trap, abandon it, and devote their remaining resources and energies to finding a new digital one.

It’s an entertaining interview, one in which Andreessen casts cold water on dreams of an iPad-fueled rescue (he notes that Web-only publications are barely thinking about the iPad) and observes that technology companies are better at surviving wrenching transitions because they accept constant disruption as the way of the world. Technology companies that survive do so by seeing change coming, adapting before it arrives, and striking off in a new direction. Boats get burned all the time.

Another view came from Paul Gillin, who writes that Andreessen “has a point that it makes senses to abandon failing models in the long term, but setting fire to profitable print operations is the wrong strategy at the moment. After years of fretting over declining circulation and trying desperately to rejuvenate a dying business, newspaper publishers are finally adopting an intelligent strategy. They’re milking all they can from their profitable business while trying to manage it down to a level that new models can take over.”

While acknowledging the transition won’t be easy, Gillin says that “once publishers reach the threshold of 20% online revenue, they can conceivably shutter their print operations while sustaining the business and the brand. They’re trying to get to that threshold gracefully, though. Lots of money can still be made in print if publishers can manage that asset down steadily while reducing costs in lockstep.”

Like Andreessen, Gillin worries whether publishers will internalize tech companies’ move-or-die mentality, and notes that shareholder demands for profits will make it harder for publishers to find new revenue opportunities and grow them through investment. (It’s an excellent point — cultural change is hard enough without having to also convince shareholders of the need to switch.) His advice: Don’t burn the boats, but gather firewood.

I’m not taking Andreessen at face value — he was being a good, provocative quote. But I get what he’s saying. Big organizations have trouble avoiding consensus solutions and compromises. As Gillin writes, the danger of the milk-the-cash-cow transition plan from print to digital is it’s difficult to execute even in theory; compromise yourself short of it and you haven’t made the investments necessary to jump to a workable digital model. You’re still in the boats.

But there’s another aspect to this, one I find troubling. The Cortés story is one of those tales that never turns out to be true — in the newspaperese of another age it was “too good to check.” Assuming this would be the case, I started fooling around on Wikipedia and immediately noticed something. Cortés had been told by the governor of Hispaniola not to go to Mexico, but went anyway. He was a mutineer. As such, going back would have had repercussions considerably more serious than a failure to unlock innovation.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there — but if so, it’s a grim one for print media. What if surviving on the unknown digital shores requires that one first be a mutineer?

Sports, Linking and the New Competitive Advantage

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on March 9, 2010

In my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center, I look at the diminishing value of scoops in the era of links and retweets. Sports fans now get information not just from destination sites, but from emails, Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. Meanwhile, at least on Twitter, sportswriters now routinely acknowledge news broken by their rivals. (And increasingly by athletes, agents and leagues that don’t need middlemen in the first place.)

The result is that scoops — at least of the routine, I-learned-this-a-little-before-you-did variety — have almost no value anymore. Linking and Twitter acknowledgments have blurred the once-inviolate boundaries between news organizations, and those boundaries have been erased by fans’ use of social media to gather and consume information from many different news organizations at once. The life expectancy of “routine scoops” has dwindled from a day in the paper era to minutes in the Web era to seconds in the Twitter era. Given this mayfly life, few sports fans notice where routine scoops come from anymore, and fewer sports fans care.

This, I argue over at NSJC, is ultimately good for sportswriters, because it makes being smart and fast more valuable than just being fast and makes writing me-too stories pointless. Reader and brand loyalty is now won by being first to offer analysis, predictions, and historical context, as well as by creating “true scoops” that aren’t easy to match. What links that seemingly different material is that it’s hard to copy, and its value is difficult to capture through links and retweets. This restores some of the competitive advantage of being first, which is good for the publisher. For the writer, doesn’t working on this stuff sound a lot more fun than turning out commodity stories more and more fans have already read?

Which brings me to Zachary Kouwe and the New York Times. What went wrong and led to Kouwe’s departure from the Times for plagiarism has been dissected from several points of view. There have been questions about the punishing pace of being a young reporter who has to turn out tweets and blog posts and Web stories and print stories. And the Times (and by extension the rest of the mainstream press) has been lambasted for not embracing the culture of the link that underpins the Web. (For three good takes on what happened, see Felix Salmon at Reuters, Paul Smalera on True/Slant and Mathew Ingram at GigaOM.)

Both Ingram and Smalera wonder why Kouwe spent so much time re-reporting when he could have just linked, and wonder if competitive concerns were at the heart of that decision. Ingram observes that links are bridges that “can also take readers elsewhere, and if your business depends (or you think it depends) on keeping those readers on your island, you might think twice about building that bridge.” And Smalera writes that “editors of certain stripe do get annoyed/upset when you attribute reporting to a competitor, especially if they’re of the opinion that you could report the same details yourself if you’d quit being so lazy and pick up the damn phone. … I would bet, with no inside knowledge, that the fiercely competitive Times, especially its Business section, especially DealBook, is loath to credit competitors, because it looks weak. So editors push for original-sounding reporting, and Kouwe massaged wire copy and blog posts to meet deadlines and word counts.”

I don’t have any inside knowledge either, but I’d bet Ingram and Smalera have found the crux of the problem — which I see less as a deliberate rejection of Web values than as an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.

Let’s go back to sports. What Kouwe was doing was re-reporting “routine scoops.” This is a waste of time on the Web anyway — as Felix Salmon notes, “there are surely higher and better uses of your valuable time than going back to rewrite a story which already exists elsewhere.”

I agree absolutely — particularly when fewer and fewer readers care. The prescription for business news is the same as it is for sports: Link to and retweet the news your competitor broke, then beat your competitor to the punch of explaining what it means and why it matters. That’s where the competitive advantage lies now.

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Side Businesses, Communities and Missions

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on March 4, 2010

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a must-read on side-bet businesses that could help news organizations through their current woes.

For those who think this is something new, Mitchell passes along Michael Schudson’s observation that American newspapers got their start as advertisements for printers who made their money printing other things — as well as by offering postal services and serving as general stores. And he notes that today, the Washington Post gets the majority of its revenue from Kaplan, its education business.

Of course, few news organization are likely bets for launching test-prep behemoth, but smaller papers have done well with smaller ventures: The Pocono Record’s editor tells Mitchell that the paper does a nice side business selling reprints of photos taken at sporting events and festivals by the paper’s photographers. (Because the photo galleries are posted online, they also give the Record a nice traffic bump.) An Alaska TV station runs airplane flights and fishing trips. And lots of specialty news organizations offer special reports or host meetings.

Mitchell offers three considerations for news organizations considering such side-bet ventures. At the top of his list: “consistency with the organization’s values.”

Agreed — to which I’d add a wrinkle. To me, the core values of every news organization should include serving as a key member of a community and as a collection point/repository for information about that community. (Though not necessarily the sole such repository or the core of that community.) I think news organizations have accelerated their decline by losing sight of this mission, through cutbacks that have damaged their institutional memory and fetishizing empty traffic numbers that accompanied oft-meaningless “reach.” Some side-bet businesses of the sort discussed by Mitchell would simultaneously bring in more money and reinvigorate news organizations’ role in their communities.

The Pocono Record’s photo galleries bring in money, but I’d argue they’re also a community resource, a digital expansion of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local businesses, particularly if they’re constructed to make the news organization a valuable middleman.

My folks have a summer house in Maine, and one of their local papers there is the Lincoln County News. Like the Record, the News posts photo galleries from local events and sells reprints. It also has Web forms for submitting events, birth announcements and news of engagements and weddings. For those who think small local papers are just shovelware, there are a lot of great, community-friendly features here. What else could the News do? A next step might be to tie together wedding announcements with local caterers, wedding planners, and the like, link birth announcements with florists, and so on. Tie the food/dining section in with reader reviews and location-based services. Instead of just linking to restaurants’ Web sites, offer to build or improve restaurant Web sites — or any potential advertiser, for that matter. Then the paper gets a cut of referrals. (You’d have to be careful, of course: Restaurant reviews, for example, couldn’t be dictated by business relationships. But bright lines have always had to be drawn, and small towns have always been webs of personal and business connections.)

For a local news organization that built itself out in this way, the business of news might seem secondary on the balance sheet: The organization would be a Web consultancy, photo service, community bulletin board and partner with many local businesses that also had some journalists on staff, raising the question of which business is the side bet. But from one point of view — a critical one for paying the bills — news has always been secondary, the stuff around the ads meant to connect businesses with local customers. All of these connections would support the news organization’s mission of participating in and supporting a community — just as those long-ago print shops provided valuable services to local businesses and individuals, sold useful items, served as a gathering place and even printed some news.

Comments Off on Side Businesses, Communities and Missions

That Pew Report — and Other Monday Reads

Posted in Going Local, Social Media, Social Search, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 1, 2010

There’s a new report out from Pew’s Excellence in Journalism project, and it’s a pretty fascinating snapshot of American news consumers and their habits. Nieman Labs has a good overview here, as does Pew itself.

Quick reaction: I found the report an interesting confirmation of how quickly news consumption is changing. Consider the following:

  • 92% of respondents use multiple platforms to get their news
  • 56% say they follow news all or most of the day
  • 37% say they’ve helped create news, commented on it or shared it

That’s a sea change — the old print-only, brand-loyal news consumer transformed into one who’s often looking for news, getting it from multiple sources and on multiple platforms, and then doing something with it if they aren’t creating it themselves.

A couple of points made me yearn for further exploration:

  • Some examining the study’s conclusions have noted that just 2% of respondents rely on the Internet exclusively for news, but I think that’s less surprising than it is on first glance — few people are that absolutist in their consumption habits. I still get news from print sources and television, so I’d fall into the 98% category, but my print and TV consumption of news is a rounding error compared to what it was even five years ago.
  • I was interested that 57% of respondents said they relied on just two to five Web sites for their news, suggesting that while news consumers graze, they may not graze very far afield. But if I were a publisher, I’d want more information before I drew a conclusion from that. For instance, I’d want to know if that answer takes into account material people read through email sharing and social networking, which could bring many more sources into the mix.
  • When asked what they wanted more coverage of, respondents’ top choice was “science and discoveries,” at 44%. Bringing up the rear was local, at 38%. But when you look at the methodology, those numbers are essentially the same.

Finally, the report clearly shows some opportunities for publishers.

  • The most popular online news subject is the weather (81%). As a callow journalist, I complained loudly about having to do weather stories. As a manager at an online news site, I never thought twice about our weather offerings. As a reader, I concur with the poll: Checking the weather is what I do the most. Moreover, I’d love to have more information about what the weather is doing, beyond forecasts. Case in point: My home just got socked by the weekend’s snowicane, and I found it very difficult to get an in-depth explanation of what this weird storm was and why it was doing what it did. The best explanation I found came from the Baltimore Sun, which has a wonderful weather blog by reporter Frank Roylance. Given what Pew has found and what our own experiences will tell us, why are weather blogs so rare?
  • Pew found that 23% of social-networking users follow news organizations or individual journalists within social-networking sites. That isn’t taking into account social-networking users who interact with the news through a degree of separation by reading what friends and peers pass along, which is a much higher percentage. These people are specifically making news organizations or individual journalists part of their social-networking habits. Next time a publisher wonders about the value of social networking, there’s a stat for them.
  • 70% of Pew’s respondents agreed that the amount of news and information out there available from different sources is overwhelming. There’s the case for curation and being a trustworthy gateway right there.

A couple of quick notes about other things:

My latest EidosMedia Web chat with my friend David Baker is available here. This time around, David and I are chatting about mobile strategy for news organizations. By the way, my thanks to David and Massimiliano Iannotta for their help with RTN’s recent redesign. (That cool image header is David’s doing as well.)

Over at the National Sports Journalism Center, I write about my spring-training news habits, and how I take in news from a huge number of sources that didn’t exist a few years ago. In discussing digital journalism, it’s easy to forget that while these are anxious times for publishers, consumers have never had it better in terms of how much information is available and how many choices they have.

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