Reinventing the Newsroom

Where Does Brand Fragmentation End?

Posted in Branding, Paid Content, Social Search, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on June 30, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Earlier this week Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote that Rolling Stone has little hope of capitalizing on the notoriety of Michael Hastings’ profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal to increase newsstand sales and drive more subscriptions. As Nolan writes, “[w]hereas once people would have rushed out to newsstands to pick up copies of Rolling Stone and read what all fuss was about with McChrystal, now they either A) read that one single story on RS’s website, for free, or B) read it at the competition’s website for free, which is what happened in this case.” (Rolling Stone’s inability to get its own story online in a timely fashion remains frankly mind-boggling.)

Nolan argues that Rolling Stone, Esquire and Vanity Fair put out stories as good as those found in The New Yorker or The Atlantic, but magazines in the former group aren’t taken seriously as a whole because their good stuff is mixed in with so much fluff. He calls this “Good Stories, Bad Magazine Syndrome,” and laments that Rolling Stone and other sufferers “will never put out enough of those stories to make the types of people who care about those stories seriously consider reading the magazine on a regular basis.”

Good point, but Nolan isn’t really talking about the puzzle of how you brand a combination of get-everybody-talking journalism and cotton-candy features. He’s discussing a much larger problem:

Everyone knows that you don’t need to subscribe to Rolling Stone in order to read the five great stories they publish every year; just wait until you hear those stories mentioned elsewhere and check in then…The internet has split each and every story from every outlet into its own discrete item. Unless your publication is consistent enough to somehow pull all of these separate links into a coherent whole, you’ll never be a destination, per se. You’re just hosting writers and writing checks.

Nolan comes face-to-face with that problem, but I think he blinked. Because what if consistency isn’t enough? What happens to news organizations as we know them if this atomization of content is so thorough and irreversible that no publication can pull its discrete articles into a coherent whole? Without coherent brands, will any publication host writers and write checks?

In the months after I went freelance, I talked with a few organizations about potential newsroom jobs. During the first couple such conversations, I apologized for having read plenty of articles from Publication X without being familiar with its site, explaining that I mostly read individual articles that found their way to me. Later, I quit apologizing — because this is increasingly the reality of how more and more of us read. Among general-interest publications, I read The Atlantic and The New Yorker because they still show up at the house in print. I skim The New York Times because it’s the closest thing I have to a hometown paper, which is either nostalgia or dangerously close to it. For me, every other brand has been blown to fragments that arrive sifted by Twitter and Facebook, or are turned up by search. The future may belong to “bottom-up” brands designed to be encountered in bits and pieces — the home pages of companies such as Demand Media, About.com and YouTube are rarely glimpsed and for all intents and purposes irrelevant.

As the fragmentation of content continues, the importance of traditional brands’ section pages and home pages will continue to wane — which newsroom middle managers will find a lot more frightening than readers will. Section and home pages aggregate news for readers, yes, but readers are increasingly doing that themselves through personalization, or trusting their peers to do it for them. Too often, home pages are committee-built disasters anyway — a cacophony of news, features and corporate messaging from every internal constituency too big to be ignored. Readers, relentlessly trained to hunt for signal, rightly dismiss them as noise. When he was consulting for the Guardian, TBD.com’s Jim Brady shut down the Guardian America front page, explaining to PaidContent’s David Kaplan that “you’re better off putting your stories on Twitter and posting them on Digg and Facebook and pitching them to blogs that can move a lot of traffic, than posting them on a section front that’s getting no traffic anyway. One of the things I pushed for was that you have to get away from the idea of getting people to simply come to your home page. You have to get your home page to the people.”

If destination sites crumble, how do the bills get paid? I believe that people will pay for content [disclosure: I’m a consultant for Journalism Online], but paywalls and meters limited to a single site may be short-term solutions, because they’re ideas that spring from the old model of large brands and destination sites. Ultimately, what we may need is not paywalls but paytags — bits of code that accompany individual articles or features, and that allow them to be paid for. MTV’s Maya Baratz is ahead of the curve here, urging publishers to think of their products not as platforms, but as apps — which to Baratz means “not only allowing, but thriving off of, having your content live elsewhere.” But between wallet friction and the penny gap, the mechanics of paytags make paywalls and single-site meters look like comparatively simple problems to solve.

As readers, we understand that publications have been atomized — our own habits increasingly show us that every day. But publishers need to face the consequences of what that means. And that won’t be easy: Their entire world, from planning to production to distribution to promotion to how to get people to pay for it, is built around a fundamentally different set of organizing principles. What if those organizing principles are already obsolete?

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Paywalls, Tradeoffs and Other Journalism Questions

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on June 24, 2010

This post is a bit of an experiment: I wrote it on the iPad via the WordPress app, using a Bluetooth keyboard. We’ll see how it goes.

* * *

Add the Tallahassee Democrat to the list of news organizations instituting a paywall, starting July 1. That’s part of a Gannett initiative that will involve three papers initially.

I spoke with Bob Gabordi, the Democrat’s executive editor, back in September, and found him to be thoughtful about his craft and his business. And every experiment in paid content will yield our industry more data and more information about best practices, which is what we need. So I wish him and his folks luck.

(Disclosure for the next part: I’m a consultant for Journalism Online, which supports a range of payment options, but whose standard model is metered access. Though I’m a consultant for JOL in part because our views about paid content are simpatico.)

That said, I worry that the Democrat’s experiment is doomed to fail or at best achieve unimpressive results. The absolutist paywall (services, classifieds and the like will be outside, as well as potentially some content such as obituaries) is an awfully high hurdle for potential subscribers to clear. The metered model, on the other hand, effectively targets a news organization’s most-engaged and loyal readers and tries to convert them to subscribers, without bothering occasional visitors who aren’t good prospects for subscriptions anyway. In this way, a meter preserves a news organization’s visibility in search and social media, which ought to help ensure a steady flow of new readers.

The second aspect of Tallahassee’s plan that worries me is that current home-delivery customers get online access for no additional charge. While I understand the impulse to reward loyal subscribers who’ve effectively been footing the bills for everyone else, I think that kind of bundle is a mistake because it reinforces a perception that’s brought our industry no small amount of trouble: that online content has no value. I think readers expect online subscriptions to cost less than print ones, because they understand that producing an online newspaper doesn’t require paper and trucks and kids with satchels on bikes. (They still exist out there somewhere, right?) But that’s not the same as saying that you should get online content for nothing because the print version hits your screen door in the early morning. Continuing to give online away now, even in the name of protecting print, makes it harder to charge for it tomorrow.

* * *

An interesting discussion has sprung up around Michael Hastings’ profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone: Did Hastings write a less-varnished profile because he was a freelancer instead of a beat reporter, and therefore didn’t need to pull punches so he could preserve access to his subject?

Politico writers Gordon Lubold and Carole E. Lee certainly seemed to think so, writing that “as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.” But that observation disappeared from later versions of their story, leaving NYU’s Jay Rosen to wonder what the heck was going on.

I don’t know why Politico dropped that: Lubold and Lee’s observation struck me not as revealing any sinister secret, but as an admission of an unfortunate aspect of beat-writing. (Update: A Politico writer emailed Jay Rosen that there’s no conspiracy — it’s just that that material came to seem tangential. I see no reason to doubt that.) Ask any sports fan, and he or she will tell you that the best time to find out what the relationships were like in a locker room is after a player, coach or manager moves on. This can be annoying as a reader, but I understand it as a journalist. Or perhaps I drunk the Kool-Aid a long time ago: Covering a beat, particularly when your subjects are members of a rather guarded fraternity, demands not just reporting and writing skills, but a certain amount of diplomacy. Is exploring something painful today worth being shut out tomorrow? Are readers better served by building relationships with subjects that will yield a steady flow of more interesting information? Not every reporter who leaves something out of a story is in the tank for a subject, just as not every reporter who leaves something out of a story does so to serve some perceived higher good. A certain messiness is inherent to the process and the relationship. (And frankly, this will only getting messier as more and more sources bypass the press to speak directly.)

On the other hand, Rolling Stone quite clearly shot itself in the foot — heck, it blasted off the whole limb — by not being ready with an online version of what it had to know would be a huge story.

* * *

Because you can’t get enough of me: I chatted recently with Mike Wilkinson of the Detroit News and Columbia’s Chasen Marshall about the flow of information and whether athletes should be thought of as role models in our fast-forward, digital world. (Respectively.) That two-edged sword metaphor of mine needs some work.

* * *

IPad Experiment verdict: OK, I’m missing some basic functionality in terms of font styles, centering text, and the like, or perhaps couldn’t figure out how to unlock it. I had to fall back on my rudimentary knowledge of HTML. The bigger problem is it’s much harder to multitask, meaning I wrote this with TKs for everything from people’s names to links and quotes, and had to laboriously fill them by saving this draft, going back to the main screen, starting the browser, finding Web sites, copying stuff and pasting it in, lather rinse repeat. This would work much better for a post that was more an off-the-cuff observation or essay than anything that links out a lot.

And embarrassingly, I didn’t realize you can’t remote-publish from a free WordPress account, so I wound up copying and pasting this into an email and pubbing it the old-fashioned way. But hey, as a proof of concept, you can do a basic blog post via iPad. That’s pretty cool.

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The IPad, Made Simpler

Posted in Cultural Change, IPad by reinventingthenewsroom on June 17, 2010

On Tuesday Paid Content’s Staci D. Kramer grabbed the legendary design guru and visual journalist Mario Garcia for a quick interview at the Poynter Institute, where he was the keynote speaker at Poynter’s Power of the Tablet conference. (Disclosure: I spent my teenage years as a Poynter brat, and so have been lucky enough to know Mario since I was a kid.) It’s a good interview, which you can watch here as part of Kramer’s report.

In it, Garcia says something I thought goes to the heart of the appeal of the iPad and whatever tablet computers successfully emulate it: The iPad, he tells Kramer, “allows you to feel disconnected when you are connected.”

Yes, I thought, that’s it exactly.

The question of whether the iPad is a vehicle for production or consumption is an interesting one, but misses the point. Similarly, thinking of the iPad as a “lean-back” device instead of a “lean-forward” one is helpful, but only one aspect of what it does.

Many of us feel ambivalent about how technology has remade our lives. On the one hand, we love being connected in a way that feels active, as opposed to taking in information from a TV or a print newspaper. Take away Gmail and Facebook and Twitter and our RSS feeds and our browser of choice and we feel a gnawing insecurity: We’re out of the loop, and things are happening out there that we don’t know about. On the other hand, we remember when things weren’t like this and we never felt that insecurity when not always connected, and wonder if the bargain was worth it. Now and then, if we manage to get past that twitch of needing connection, we find ourselves relaxing and wandering in our own minds in a way we haven’t for a while — and may think, Gee, I should do this more often. I refuse to get Wi-Fi on planes because I like the experience of losing myself in a book for a few hours or simply staring out the window and seeing where my thoughts go. The shame is that I’ve trained myself to think I can only do that on an airplane.

The tablet has the potential to split the difference: It’s a device that allows connection, but encourages contemplation. It gets us out of our busy, working/searching desktop or smartphone postures, returning us to the feeling of curling up with a book. It lets us check email or do some quick surfing, but also makes it easier to stop. It’s not a surprise that early iPad news apps are uncomfortably positioned somewhere between print and online experiences — so too is the iPad. Our job as editors and designers and thinkers is to get rid of the “uncomfortably” part — in other words, to create something that lets you feel disconnected when you’re connected.

Yes, that’s it exactly. Thanks Mario!

A Little Plus Sign and the Puzzle of Links (And Other Monday Reads)

Posted in Digital Experiments, Hyperlinks by reinventingthenewsroom on June 14, 2010

Over at Scripting News, Dave Winer shows off an interesting new approach to supplemental text and additional material: He’s added sub-text to his blog posts. Winer is responding to a feature Rich Ziade added to Readability that converts hyperlinks to endnotes, and to the brouhaha over hyperlinks and distraction kicked up by Nicholas Carr, a tempest I waded into myself with a discussion of credibility, readability and connectivity.

So, to Winer’s experiment. As a reader, I dislike having sub-text open beneath the paragraph I’m reading — it gives the text a Russian-doll effect I find disorienting and distracting, and I don’t like the way it makes the visible text feel like something to skim. (Other readers’ mileage will vary, of course; for his part, Winer likes this quite a bit, precisely because it differentiates skimmers from readers.) But I’m intrigued by a potential variation on this idea, one that gets at something Salon’s Laura Miller has tried in an intriguing Carr-inspired experiment of her own. Miller has been presenting hyperlinks as endnotes, and in doing so, she found that to make those links meaningful, she had to include “additional text to explain what the source pages are and why the reader might find them valuable.” This is one of those things that immediately strikes writers as additional work, and may make them particularly unhappy once they realize (at first subconsciously) that it’s additional work that’s worth doing. Such realizations are impossible to unrealize once you’ve had them, leaving you to work out for yourself how long you’ll resist admitting what you already know to be true.

One argument against endnotes is that they remove links from their context, and therefore reduce the connective power of hyperlinks. I’m not sure about that — I tend to open links in new tabs and read them later, which makes a thorough hash of context anyway. But perhaps Winer’s plus sign offers a solution to the dilemma. What if we used his sub-text function to open supplemental material not as sub-paragraphs, but as sidebar text? You could read a piece without the distraction of hyperlinks, but take in at a glance where supplemental material can be accessed. Clicking those plus signs would open up material in the margins — definitions, footnotes, tips of the hat, goofy asides and of course hyperlinks with explanations of what those links are and why they’re potentially valuable. Readability would be enhanced, as Winer’s plus signs are less distracting than hyperlinks. Yet context would be preserved, as material would appear near to where we find hyperlinks in our current model. This, it seems to me, supports the credibility and connectivity of hyperlinks.

I don’t know if that’s the ultimate answer to the dilemma of hyperlinks and distraction. But it strikes me as worth trying.

* * *

Switching gears, my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at SB Nation’s new regional sports pages, part of a clever and efficient new product strategy for the sports-blog network. What grabbed me was how SB Nation’s effort parallels that of ESPN Local, while differing from it in some fundamental ways: It’s ground-up instead of top-down, and wholeheartedly embraces the fan point of view instead of replicating the objective, reporting-driven model of traditional news organizations.

These are intriguing times for sports bloggers and traditional sportswriters: As blogging matures and traditional news organizations grow increasingly real-time and experimental, we’re heading for a fascinating collision between two forms that are simultaneously competitive and complementary. And the fact that I may be personally caught in this slow-motion collision just adds to my eagerness to discover how it will all turn out. Buckle up!

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Credibility, Readability, Connectivity

Posted in Creating Context by reinventingthenewsroom on June 7, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab, where it sparked a lively conversation not reproduced here:

The humble, ubiquitous link found itself at the center of a firestorm last week, with the spark provided by Nicholas Carr, who wrote about hyperlinks as one element (among many) he thinks contribute to distracted, hurried thinking online. With that in mind, Carr explored the idea of delinkification — removing links from the main body of the text.

The heat that greeted Carr’s proposals struck me (and CJR’s Ryan Chittum) as a disproportionate response. Carr wasn’t suggesting we stop linking, but asking if putting hyperlinks at the end of the text makes that text more readable and makes us less likely to get distracted. But of course the tinder has been around for a while. There’s the furor over iPad news apps without links to the web, which has angered and/or worried some who see the iPad as a new walled garden for content. There’s the continuing discontent with “old media” and their linking habits as newsrooms continue their sometimes technologically and culturally bumpy transition to becoming web-first operations. And then there’s Carr’s provocative thesis, explored in The Atlantic and his new book The Shallows, that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us better at skimming and multitasking but worse at deep thinking.

I think the recent arguments about the role and presentation of links revolve around three potentially different things: credibility, readability and connectivity. And those arguments get intense when those factors are mistaken for each other or are seen as blurring together. Let’s take them one by one and see if they can be teased apart again.

Credibility

A bedrock requirement of making a fair argument in any medium is that you summarize the opposing viewpoint accurately. The link provides an ideal way to let readers check how you did, and alerts the person you’re arguing with that you’ve written a response. This is the kind of thing the web allows us to do instantly and obviously better than before; given that, providing links has gone from handy addition to requirement when advancing an argument online. As Mathew Ingram put it in a post critical of Carr, “I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice.”

That’s no longer a particularly effective strategy. Witness the recent dustup between NYU media professor Jay Rosen and Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS’s Washington Week. Early last month, Rosen — a longtime critic of clubby political journalism — offered Washington Week as his pick for something the world could do without. Ifill’s response sought to diminish Rosen and his argument by not deigning to mention him by name. This would have been a tacky rhetorical ploy even in print, but online it fails doubly: The reader, already suspicious by Ifill’s anonymizing and belittling a critic, registers the lack of a link and is even less likely to trust her account. (Unfortunately for Ifill, the web self-corrects: Several commenters on her post supplied Rosen’s name, and were sharply critical of her in ways a wiser argument probably wouldn’t have provoked.)

Readability

Linking to demonstrate credibility is good practice, and solidly noncontroversial. Thing is, Carr didn’t oppose the basic idea of links. He called them “wonderful conveniences,” but added that “they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions — we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head.”

Chittum, for his part, noted that “reading on the web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that — no matter how backed up — has an endpoint.”

When I read Chittum’s question about tabs, my eyes flicked guiltily from his post to the top of my browser. (The answer was 11.) Like a lot of people, when I encounter a promising link, I right-click it, open it in a new tab, and read the new material later. I’ve also gotten pretty good at assessing links by their URLs, because not all links are created equal: They can be used for balance, further explanation and edification, but also to show off, logroll and name-drop.

I’ve trained myself to read this way, and think it’s only minimally invasive. But as Carr notes, “even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters.” I’m not sure about the matters part, but I’ll concede the point about the extra cognitive load. I read those linked items later because I want to pay attention to the argument being made. If I stopped in the middle for every link, I’d have little chance of following the argument through to its conclusion. Does the fact that I pause in the middle to load up something to read later detract from my ability to follow that argument? I bet it does.

Carr’s experiment was to put the links at the end. (Given that, calling that approach “delinkification” was either unwise or intentionally provocative.) In a comment to Carr’s post, Salon writer Laura Miller (who’s experimented with the endlinks approach), asked a good question: Is opening links in new tabs “really so different from links at the end of the piece? I mean, if you’re reading the main text all the way through, and then moving on to the linked sources through a series of tabs, then it’s not as if you’re retaining the original context of the link.”

Connectivity

Carr was discussing links in terms of readability, but some responses have dealt more with the merits of something else — connectivity. Rosen — who’s described the ethic of the web persuasively as “to connect people and knowledge,” described Carr’s effort as an attempt to “unbuild the web.” And it’s a perceived assault on connectivity that inflames some critics of the iPad. John Batelle recently said the iPad is “a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged — one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL — and gave birth to Google.”

Broadly speaking, this is the same criticism of the iPad offered bracingly by Cory Doctorow: It’s a infantilizing vehicle for consumption, not creation. Which strikes me now as it did then as too simplistic. I create plenty of information, love the iPad, and see no contradiction between the two. I now do things — like read books, watch movies and casually surf the web — with the iPad instead of with my laptop, desktop or smartphone because the iPad provides a better experience for those activities. But that’s not the same as saying the iPad has replaced those devices, or eliminated my ability or desire to create.

When it comes to creating content, no, I don’t use the iPad for anything more complex than a Facebook status update. If I want to create something, I’ll go to my laptop or desktop. But I’m not creating content all the time. (And I don’t find it baffling or tragic that plenty of people don’t want to create it at all.) If I want to consume — to sit back and watch something, or read something — I’ll pick up the iPad. Granted, if I’m using a news app instead of a news website, I won’t find hyperlinks to follow, at least not yet. But that’s a difference between two modes of consumption, not between consumption and creation. And the iPad browser is always an icon away — as I’ve written before, so far the device’s killer app is the browser.

Now that the flames have died down a bit, it might be useful to look at links more calmly. Given the link’s value in establishing credibility, we can dismiss those who advocate true delinkification or choose not to link as an attempt to short-cut arguments. But I think that’s an extreme case. Instead, let’s have a conversation about credibility, readability and connectivity: As long as links are supplied, does presenting them outside of the main text diminish their credibility? Does that presentation increase readability, supporting the ethic of the web by creating better conversations and connections? Is there a slippery slope between enhancing readability and diminishing connectivity? If so, are there trade-offs we should accept, or new presentations that beg to be explored?

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