Reinventing the Newsroom

The Times U.K. and the Times U.S. Try Paywalls

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on May 27, 2010

This post originally ran at Nieman Journalism Lab.

When Rupert Murdoch arrived at The Wall Street Journal, the word on the executive floor was that WSJ.com would soon become an entirely free site. After Murdoch was given a look at the numbers by the business side, the subscriptions remained.

Remembering that, I figured Murdoch’s talk of a draconian, all-or-nothing paywalls for The Times of London and The Sunday Times was saber-rattling aimed at the likes of Google, Microsoft and his own competitors. This would be the Journal experience in reverse, I assumed: News Corp. would talk up an absolutist paywall locking its content away from casual visitors and automated spiders alike, but then look at its own property’s success with a relatively porous, search- and link-friendly paywall and implement a more-nuanced approach.

But I was wrong. (And Alan Rusbridger, you were right.) As Tim Bradshaw writes for the Financial Times’ techblog, when the paywalls go up on the Times and the Sunday Times in a few weeks, all but the homepages will become invisible unless you pay £1 a day or £2 a week. There won’t be a meter like the FT’s or the one The New York Times plans to implement next year. You’ll be in or out. (And News International’s Paul Hayes has a pungent prediction about his own fate if too many people choose “out.”)

Bradshaw was part of a group of journalists and bloggers News International invited to a sneak peek (as was the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones), and he writes that “some members of the Times team seemed as keen to know what we thought of the plans as we were to see them.” And indeed, some of the comments made to Bradshaw read as simultaneously hopeful and a tad defensive. Assistant editor Tom Whitwell praised his publication’s spare, print-like look (which I agree is elegant and quite readable) and said that the Times would throw fewer stories at people than most sites, which he portrayed as a better alternative than “Google News showing you 4,000 versions of the same thing.” (Apples to oranges, as Google News is for searching, not browsing the news.)

Comment editor Danny Finkelstein, for his part, seemed unconcerned by the possibility that his articles will no longer be part of the online conversation, retorting that news organizations without a paywall “won’t go viral, they will go out of business” and adding that “we are trying to make people pay for the journalism…I want my employer to be paid for the intellectual property they are paying me for.” When a Twitter correspondent called the redesign very nice but said he wouldn’t be paying for it, Finkelstein responded: “Sorry to hear that. Our alternative is???”

Well, a number of things — including alternatives that seem far more promising for attracting new readers, keeping news organizations and writers like Finkelstein from being sidelined, and that aren’t such big gambles on traffic and ad dollars. The Times could emulate the Journal’s own model, setting up a relatively porous paywall that has retained subscribers (and thereby boosted ad revenues) while allowing Journal content to be discovered and read through search and shared through email, blogs, and social media. Or the Times could opt for a metered model like that of the FT, in which readers can see a certain number of articles per month for free, after which they’re asked to subscribe. That model zeroes in on a news organization’s most-frequent visitors — who one would assume would be the most-loyal, engaged members of its audience — and asks them to pay. (Disclosure: Perhaps because of my WSJ.com DNA, I’ve long advocated or at least not opposed paywalls and meters, and I now consult for Journalism Online.)

Where the Times U.K.’s model is closed, the Times U.S.’s model seems as open as possible. All Things D’s Peter Kafka notes that the Times’ meter won’t count links from third-party sites such as blogs. (Well, as a Times spokeswoman notes in a comment, actually they will — but if you’re over the limit you can still read a story via an outside link. Which would seem to indicate they won’t.) As Kafka notes, it’s a bit confusing, but the aim is that bloggers won’t be deterred from linking to the Times and readers won’t be trained not to follow such links.

Can that system be gamed? Of course — just as people can bypass the Journal’s paywall by searching for headlines in Google. But worrying about gaming is looking at paid content from the absolutist point of view: Everybody pays and maybe we make some exceptions. The metered model starts from a very different place: Figure out who’s most likely to pay, try to convert them, and don’t worry about the people who won’t pay anyway.

Between iPad apps and the renewed interest in subscriptions, metered models, and paywalls, the next 12 months are going to see a lot of ferment and experimentation in paid content. That experimentation is a good thing for the news industry, and there’s no reason an absolutist paywall shouldn’t be one of those experiments. (Particularly since News Corp. can pay for it out of a sliver of “Avatar” royalties.) But there are experiments designed to explore possible successes, and experiments designed to confirm probable failures. The Times U.K.’s paywall seems likely to be one of the latter.

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Houston, We Have a Twitter Strategy (and Other Tuesday Reads)

Posted in Branding, Communities, Going Local, IPad, Paid Content, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 25, 2010

For a look at a great way to use Twitter and Twitter lists, check out the Houston Chronicle’s efforts, as explained by blog editor Dwight Silverman. (And found through Steve Buttry’s excellent post on the subject, which includes a terrific slide show of Twitter advice.) The Chronicle has had a fair amount of success getting local Twitter users to use a #hounews hashtag for local breaking news, and now they’re expanding that idea to Twitter lists — tweets from members of the lists appear on the Chronicle’s homepage, but only if the #hounews tag is included.

That strikes me as a smart way to filter out noise from the Twitter feed without a lot of work on the Chronicle’s side, though it does require members of the Twitter list to be proactive about including the hashtag. In his blog post, Silverman asks readers who want to be part of the list to email him, and says he’ll look at their feeds to see if they make sense for inclusion. He’s also set up a Twitter list of his own that includes people he’d like to have in the group — which is a clever way of flattering people and publicly asking them to help.

Sticking with the techie side of things, here’s the New York Times explaining how it built a better submission form for reader photos. Beyond being like catnip for coders, think of the message this sends to readers, potential advertisers, business partners and anybody else: The Times is willing to hand over its blueprints because its confidence in its own technological abilities is a lot bigger than any worries that its competitors might steal a step from it. The Times knows that smarts are like sunshine — you don’t run out of them. Giving away an idea or two is worth it if it means you get to keep people’s attention.

In discussing the prospects of the iPad and other e-readers, Meredith Corp.’s CEO noted that a migration of 20% of readers of Meredith titles to e-readers could save the company $30 million in paper, $16 million in printing costs and $16 million in mailing costs each year. There’s an assumption in there that’s by no means assured — namely, that people will pay for Meredith paid apps — and without it, these cost-savings are tantamount to being happy you’re spending less on gas now that you no longer have to drive to the workplace where you’re no longer employed. But if people will pay for apps, it’s a useful reminder of the potential savings to be had from a migration to digital.

Finally, Mike Pesca of NPR chatted with me about a recent Faith and Fear in Flushing blog post in which I wrote what I learned sorting through baseball cards that belonged to my neighbor’s late brother. I think Mike did a great job making this story work in audio form for “All Things Considered,” which was interesting for a word guy like me to be a part of. And I was amused to find myself trying to speak in the “NPR voice.” It just comes from knowing where you are, apparently.

And the Biggest Competitor for IPad News Apps Is…

Posted in Digital Experiments, IPad by reinventingthenewsroom on May 13, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Once we got done making jokes about the name, one of the more amusing aspects of the iPad’s launch was how many people made up their minds about the product’s worthiness and market fate without the benefit of using one for very long, if at all. The iPad was a closed computing system that was an insult to people’s intelligence, a walled garden appealing to publishers’ retrograde tendencies, a perfect-for-Grandma gift combining an e-reader with a good digital picture frame, and a brilliant new device that would free us from the twin annoyances of peering at smartphones and gazing at desktop monitors. As well as most every other point on that curve. (The New York Times’s David Pogue cleverly squared the circle by running two reviews in one.)

I was as guilty of this as anybody else. Annoyed with the techie grousing about the lack of multitasking, cameras and HDMI ports, I pointed out what I thought such critics were missing: Techies weren’t the intended audience for Apple’s new device. The iPad, I predicted, would let people do at least three things a lot better than current devices: watch a movie, read a book, and casually surf the Web. And those improvements alone would be enough to make it Apple’s new device a hit, since (a) a lot of people like doing those things, and (b) our enchantment with being able to do those things on a smartphone or computer has blinded us to the fact that we can’t do them very well. It’s amazing to be able to watch a movie on a phone or use the web in bed; it would be a lot more amazing if you didn’t have to peer at a screen the size of a deck of cards or leave your legs sweating beneath a laptop’s heat and weight.

After swearing I’d wait for version 2.0 of the iPad, I wound up buying one, and waiting eagerly for it to arrive. (As always seems to happen, the case and the dock arrived first and sat around for a forlorn, purposeless few days.) So after a couple of weeks of using it, how closely does the device fit my preconceptions? Pretty well, for the most part — but with one exception. The thing is, that exception has made me think about apps and publishers’ hopes for them very differently.

I initially treated the iPad like an iPhone that couldn’t make a call — which, thanks to AT&T, is also an excellent description of my actual iPhone. I spent a couple of hours looking for iPad equivalents of my iPhone apps, downloading iPhone apps that didn’t have iPad versions yet, transferring photos and music, and futzing with settings. Then I downloaded a handful of news apps for the iPad — WSJ, New York Times Editors’ Choice, USA Today, AP News, and BBC News. And then I found a comfortable spot on the couch and played around.

As I’d suspected, reading a book and watching video was very different than on my iPhone, laptop, or desktop. Ebooks were finally an intimate experience like reading physical books. Videos felt big and bright. Games were a joy — gathering my impressions was delayed by my son’s love of Flight Control HD and Sparkle HD. Battery life is impressive — I had to train myself to always keep tabs on my iPhone’s battery indicator, but the iPad does fine if it’s plugged in every few days. Using the iPad is generally a comfortable, pleasurable experience — a good design scaled-up to a useful size — and using mine quickly became part of my daily routine.

What I hadn’t considered was the browser. We’re used to subconsciously pausing to twiddle our thumbs after visiting a web page, because we’re waiting for it to load. But web browsing on the iPad is startlingly fast. And the type in particular looks great. I’d figured I’d spend some time using my iPad to lazily surf when I didn’t feel like getting up and using a laptop. But I found myself doing that more than anything else.

Which brings us to the first round of news apps. As others have noted, some are good and some aren’t — though all deserve to be assessed as the early-stage experiments they are. I think USA Today did the best job bringing its aesthetic to the Web — I like the clever navigational trick of using its section banner to switch between News, Money, Sports, and Life. (But where’s Technology?) The Times’ photos look beautiful, and the navigation feels intuitive, but the content is so paltry that the entire app feels like a demo for something still in the works. As a Wall Street Journal veteran, I appreciated WSJ’s wink to tradition by billing the app as the paper’s six-star edition, but the navigation borders on incomprehensible.

Some of the confusion is to be expected — it will take a while for standards to emerge that utilize the iPad’s new vocabulary of swiping, pinching and expanding views. And apps will get richer and deeper.

But I keep coming back to the browser.

After about a week of using the iPad, I started deleting apps, because the websites themselves were perfectly adequate. This is the reverse experience of the iPhone. On the iPhone, the browser was used only in emergencies, and apps ruled. On the iPad, at least for now, the opposite is true — the browser is superb, and renders many apps superfluous.

That complicates things for news organizations. Many have already put too much faith in the idea that being able to charge for apps will reinvigorate their financial prospects. Now, they have to confront the reality that their apps may compete with their own websites — and right now the apps don’t win that competition.

Yesterday morning, like most everybody else, I sat down to read James Fallows’ Atlantic cover story on Google and the news industry. When I saw it was six screens long, I sighed. Then I reminded myself, and reached for my iPad. As I walked to the couch, I looked for an app from The Atlantic, mostly out of duty. There wasn’t one. It didn’t matter.

Google to the Rescue! (And Other Recent Reads)

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on May 12, 2010

Like most everybody else concerned with digital journalism, I spent a good chunk of Tuesday morning reading James Fallows’ cover article in the Atlantic Monthly. (I read it very happily on the iPad’s browser — but that’s another column.)

I thought the big-picture appraisal of journalism’s prospects felt right — I agree that technology will continue to improve online display ads, and that more publishers will have success asking readers to subscribe. (I should disclose here that I recently began consulting for Journalism Online.) But at the same time, I wasn’t particularly convinced by Fallows’ thesis that a lot of journalism’s current business-model woes will be solved by Google because it’s in Google’s interests to solve them. Even granting the premise that Google wants to solve them, I think Fallows put too much faith in Google’s ability to do so through its own devices. I think he isn’t sufficiently worried about how uncertain publishers are about what path to take, or how much freedom they have to maneuver. It seems to me that this fragmentation and uncertainty will make finding and implementing a solution slow and difficult. (All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka dissects what he sees as Fallows’ leaps of faith in a brief commentary.)

Stowe Boyd offers an interesting take on the evolution of social media, from blogs (which he sees as more personal publishing than social media) to social networks and real-time streams. The idea that really grabbed me is that real-time streams such as Twitter appeal to use because they’re conversational, and use personal publishing — as well as the old-fashioned institutional kind — as raw material for the commentary and reactions that make up that conversation. I found that a new, intriguing way of thinking about social media and its symbiotic relationship with blogging and traditional content.

Finally, I found the startup Newsy interesting, as explored here by ReadWriteWeb. Newsy is basically a curator/aggregator that stitches video from different sources together (with careful attribution) into brief narratives about trending stories. It’s done on the cheap but still pretty slickly produced. Curation and aggregation isn’t new, of course, but extending it into video is a wrinkle that might yield good results for news organizations.

Is Twitter a Social Network?

Posted in Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 7, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Information Week posted an interesting account of an academic paper presented at the International World Wide Web Conference last month. The paper, written by four Korean researchers, analyzed 41.7 million Twitter user profiles, 1.47 billion social relations, 4,262 trending topics and 106 million tweets to examine the relationships between tweeters and the distribution of information across the microblogging network. (The paper is available here as a PDF.)

Their conclusions: Twitter isn’t a social network, but something more akin to traditional news media.

Twitter logoWhy isn’t Twitter a social network? The researchers noted that Twitter relationships don’t have to be reciprocal — there’s no need to follow someone back who is following you, while Facebook relationships are two-way “friendships.” (Though that’s changing with the capability to “like” something.) Only 22.1% of Twitter user pairs follow each other, the researchers said. Moreover, they noted that most follower-followed relationships on Twitter are more akin to traditional-media relationships between subscribers to information and distributors of that information, with subscribers consuming information but having little contact with distributors. A relatively small number of users are the primary sources of news, with others redistributing that news; most tweets are related to timely topics; and retweets typically come very quickly — 35% in the first 10 minutes.

The researchers’ rationale for saying Twitter isn’t a social network strikes me as more a question of definitions than anything else, but it’s an intriguing discussion nonetheless — one I think touches on deeper questions. Is a social network still a social network if reciprocity is largely theoretical? Does that untapped reciprocity undermine its value? Will any large grouping of people exchanging information settle into a pattern akin to that of traditional media?

I have nearly 700 Facebook friends, but I’ve never communicated with the majority of them. They’re folks who walk in the same digital-journalism circles, or know my writing about sportswriting, baseball or even Star Wars. I’m happy to have them as friends (I could never get past the squick factor of setting up a fan page for myself) and I respond to their messages and comments. But I don’t get very many of those — those relationships are largely one-way. I’ve initiated such relationships myself, reaching out to be Facebook friends with people whose activities interest me, but whom I’ve never contacted. Yes, we’re linked in a social network. But in many cases the friendship is really just a vehicle that allows information to flow, and that flow is largely one-way.

Moreover, that’s a pattern on all social networks — and probably all networks, period. Last summer, a Harvard Business Review study found that 10% of Twitter users accounted for more than 90% of tweets. The researchers noted that was a more concentrated level of activity than is typical for social networks, in which the top 10% of users produce 30% of content. But again, the difference strikes me as one of degree, not kind: When you put people together in a network and let them create information, you get a few producers and a lot of consumers, just as discussions get a handful of engaged commentors and a lot of silent (but interested) lurkers. Social networks may move the percentage needle this way or that way depending on their parameters, but the pattern holds.

This can strike us as a shame: Why should two-way media produce mostly one-way interactions? But I don’t think it’s anything of the sort — because “mostly” is not the same as “entirely.” Social media carries with it the potential for reciprocation, replies and for conversation and connection. That potential lies fallow, waiting to be used — but it can be used instantly. And social media carries with it the expectation of response or at least acknowledgment — perhaps not to everybody, but to enough people to demonstrate that one is listening and not just talking. That’s a sea change from traditional-media information flows, even though they may look the same when transposed to social networks.

I’m still amazed at how thoroughly 140 characters and an @ sign level the playing field on Twitter, erasing relative status and power. When I think of my Twitter and Facebook experiences, I think not of the many relationships that haven’t yielded conversation and relationships, but of the few that have — and I know that those other relationships have that potential too.

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An Announcement

Posted in Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 7, 2010

My first post for Nieman Journalism Lab appears today. Starting now, selected posts from Reinventing the Newsroom will appear at Nieman before they run here, and I’ll provide links to them when they do. Other posts will remain unique to Reinventing the Newsroom.

I’ve been an admirer of the Nieman folks and their work for some time, so I’m honored to be considered worthy of joining their ranks, and look forward to working with them.

Thoughts on Twitter and Personality

Posted in Social Media, The Journalist as Brand, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 4, 2010

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the question of Twitter and whether personal tweets are a welcome bit of color in a news feed or noise that threatens to crowd out signal.

The genesis of the column was something odd that happened in Major League Baseball last week: A number of beat writers for MLB.com tweeted that they’d been told to limit their tweets to baseball. Those tweets were then deleted — as were tweets by some of the writers pointing out that they’d created personal accounts. That touched off a row about heavyhanded control, with MLB officials insisting that an email reminder had been mistaken for a change in policy.

Whatever the case, the furor did get at an issue that journalists and news organizations will have to grapple with: How much personality is too much in someone’s Twitter stream? (Particularly now that tweets are often funneled into news feeds based on lists or hashtags, exposing them to people who don’t necessarily follow a given journalist.) I wish I had answers, but I don’t: Twitter is so new that there isn’t broad agreement about best practices. It will be fascinating to see what accepted standards emerge, and why.

Any opinions about the right mix of news and personality in one’s Twitter feed? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or via email. Or what the heck, let me know on Twitter.

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