Reinventing the Newsroom

Sad News Out of New Orleans

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on May 24, 2012

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr.)

I can see a lot of folks are coming here because they’re searching for Bruce Nolan. I mention Bruce down below — he taught me a ton when I was a kid, and I’m grateful to him — but I suspect you’re looking for the audio of Bruce’s passionate, angry, broken-hearted speech about the changes at the Times-Picayune. You can find that here, via David Carr in the New York Times. You should hear it — everyone in journalism should. After you do, I hope you’ll come back and read this.

This fall, the New Orleans Times-Picayune will cease publishing print papers daily and move to three print days a week, stepping up 24-7 operations on its web site. According to the New York Times’ David Carr, editor Jim Amoss will leave once the transition is complete, along with two managing editors. There will be staff cuts, size to be determined, at a paper that’s already seen its newsroom shrink in the aftermath of Katrina.

Which makes this a sad day for newspapers, and for me personally.

I’ll get the me stuff out of the way first: My first professional journalism job was at the Times-Picayune as a summer intern in 1989, and I may possibly have been the greenest intern in the history of green interns — not to mention one of the most mouthy, arrogant and generally obnoxious.

I was redeemed, to the extent that was possible, by attention and instruction and firm correction from a lot of folks at the Times-Picayune: Besides Jim, who took a chance on me, there were Peter Kovacs, Bruce Nolan, Jed Horne, Keith Woods, Paul Bartels, Jeannette Hardy, Chris Cooper, John Pope, Jonathan Eig and others I’ve shamefully neglected to mention because of age and time elapsed. Most of all, there was Kris Gilger, my first bureau chief and the kind of mentor every kid should pray to get. Kris was formidable and not to be crossed — I was terrified of her — but she also had your back, no matter what.

My two summers at the Times-Picayune put me on the right road as a journalist, and I’m forever grateful to the folks who pointed the way and taught me to steer. It’s heartbreaking to think of that newsroom being much reduced, particularly in a city whose peculiar institutions need aggressive, tough, full-time watchdogs.

Yet at the same time, I object to the reflexive view among news observers that fewer days in print is the same as the death of the Times-Picayune. That’s unfair to those who must keep the paper going as more of its operations shift to digital, and it’s unwise given the tidal wave of change remaking the news industry.

The signs of trouble for the newspaper industry have been abundantly clear for years. The print business is disappearing, to be replaced by a flock of digital experiments whose most optimistic outcome still guarantees smaller newsrooms. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not, and that’s been obvious for a long time. Yes, I mourn the news about the Picayune. But that isn’t the same as thinking Newhouse is wrong — in broad outline — about what needs to be done.

The question, then, is exactly what Newhouse will do. And that makes me worried all over again. The Times-Picayune was profitable — which doesn’t exempt it from the overall industry’s future, but ought to have argued for less-radical surgery. Instead, that surgery reportedly will follow the procedure Newhouse used in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s a plan I thought was unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic AnnArbor.com felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city. And the disrespect shown for T-P staff, most of whom learned about their paper’s future through the New York Times, is deplorable.

Given all that, I can’t think of any particular reason for optimism that Newhouse will get it right this time. And that’s a double dose of unhappiness.

Advertisements

Business Insider Tries to Tame Commenting

Posted in Branding, Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on July 7, 2011

I really like the comment moderation system used by Business Insider, for a number of reasons.

The skinny, as explained here: For about a year Business Insider has had a section of comments called the Bleachers, a dumping ground for comments that the editors find, to use Henry Blodget’s rather amusing formulation, “offensive, dumb, hateful, annoying, or otherwise value-less.” That’s been joined by the Bleachers’ opposite, the Board Room, a home for particularly good comments promoted by the editors. Comments worthy of neither the Board Room nor the Bleachers go in the Water Cooler.

Now, Business Insider has introduced something called the Penalty Box, which works like this: If you make a comment that gets booted to the Bleachers, you get a strike by your name. Each strike lasts a month. Accumulate three strikes and you get 24 hours in the Penalty Box, with every comment you make automatically landing in the Bleachers — unless you write something worthy of the Board Room, in which case your strikes are erased.

Is it a perfect system? No — not that it claims to be, or should be treated like it’s finished. I think 24 hours seems like too short of a time out to curb obnoxious behavior, and such a system would scale a lot better if other commenters could help police things, such as by being able to vote comments into the Bleachers and/or the Board Room. Blodget addresses the latter point in a comment of his own, noting that “the problem with leaving everything to the voting is that too often it is used as a ‘like’ system. If a reader agrees with a comment, it gets a thumbs up, and if the reader disagrees, it gets a thumbs down. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t separate valuable from value-less.”

But my objections are minor; there’s a lot to like here. I particularly like that Business Insider’s system feels loose and fun and has an identity. The whimsical names add some levity to the proceedings without eroding the purpose of the exercise, the Viking illustrations are entertaining, and the system feels like you’d want to spend time with it, which is the first step to creating habit. And perhaps most of all it’s theirs — you’re not going to mistake the Bleachers with its tomato-wielding Viking for a grayed-out comment on some other site, or get confused between the Board Room and the New York Times’s top comments.

Taming the fire-and-forget problems of web comments is an important task, and a tough job. But there’s no reason to be deadly serious about it from pillar to post. Business Insider has made it fun, and made it work for their brand and their identity. It’s an approach worth emulating.

* * *

I know posts have been scarce around here, for which I apologize — my lame excuse is that other writing projects that have sucked up a lot of my time, plus general exhaustion. That said, I’ve written a couple of columns for my Indiana University digital-sportswriting gig about Grantland, the new ESPN-backed sports-and-pop-culture site run by Bill Simmons, that touch on matters near and dear to RTN’s heart.

In the first, I decried that we insist on reviewing new magazines, columns and websites as if they sprang fully formed from their creators’ heads, with no need to find their footing. Every column, blog or site I’ve ever been a part of has needed a while to find ideal subjects, the right voice and the best way to connect with readers, and Grantland deserves that time just like everything else does. That said, I reviewed the site’s first three days of posts and concluded that by any reasonable measure Grantland was already a success.

In the second, I returned to a theme that I always find interesting: how to create digital brands in an era of brand fragmentation. Grantland isn’t a publication you pick up on a newsstand, choosing it over others, but something you’ll likely read in bits and pieces alongside bits and pieces of other publications, with daily habit, searches and peer recommendations determining which bits and pieces wind up in your particular filter. This is how we read now, and it makes building brands much harder than it used to be. Given that Grantland is already a loose collection of different subjects and well-known writers, it will be very interesting to see how the site does as a brand.

Comments Off on Business Insider Tries to Tame Commenting

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.

First Thoughts on Facebook’s Big Day

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on April 22, 2010

For a roundup of articles I found helpful and insightful about Facebook’s announcements, go here.

So yesterday was one of the more interesting days to be a Web guy in a long, long time. Reading about what Facebook had rolled out, I had to fight a sense of frustration that there was no way to take it all in and reach even a tentative conclusion — things are going to change so thoroughly that it will take weeks or probably months to even start sorting through all this.

I know what Facebook plans worries a lot of really smart people, but at first glance it doesn’t particularly bother me. If anything, I was excited to see it.

As I’ve dived deeper and deeper into social media I’ve seen a curious split in how I think of my Web habits: There’s time I spend on the wild, ever-changing, dynamic social Web and time I spend on the essentially static non-social Web. I know on some level it’s ridiculous to talk about Web sites websites as static, particularly in comparison with newspapers or books, but after Twitter that’s the way they feel. I increasingly find myself spending more time in the social precincts of the Web, and have eagerly adopted most everything that pushes the static Web that way. (When I’m searching, it’s now practically second nature for me to set “Latest” or “Past 24 Hours” instead of doing a default search.) This is a logical and welcome next step. (And in case you didn’t think Facebook is poised to eat the consumer Web, it has the infrastructure in place for location-based services and a payments system. This is going to get bigger.)

As a Web user, I love the idea of “socializing” the static Web so that my friends and peers essentially ride along with me. I’d be happy to see which of my friends and peers liked or have read something on the Washington Post or the New Yorker or most anywhere else. I didn’t get a lot of use out of that functionality on Huffington Post, which pioneered it, but that’s because I’m not a HuffPo loyalist. Though to that I’ll add that I would demand the ability to manicure my history — I remember the moment when I realized I’d just broadcast reading some HuffPo slideshow about half-dressed starlets and immediately went looking for how to make that vanish. (Dishonest? Sure. But it should no longer be news to anybody that our social-media selves aren’t the same as our real selves.)

A jolt of Facebook makes a service such as Yelp much more valuable — like anybody else, I find recommendations much more useful (or at least more compelling) when they come from a smaller group of friends and peers. Ditto for music — Pandora is a great music-discovery engine, but feeding my friends’ listening habits into it makes it far better. I don’t shop socially, but I see how a lot of people would have the same reaction to socializing their shopping habits.

Privacy is obviously a big concern here — I was amused by EPIC counsel Ginger McCall’s reaction, as given to TechNewsWorld: “this gives me lots of interesting work in the days ahead.” But perhaps this is naive, but I don’t get up in arms about being the target of behavioral advertising. Or rather, what I dislike is when that targeting done badly or dishonestly: The former wastes my attention, and the latter angers me. Truly well-targeted ads would be fine with me — a band I’ve been listening to a lot just announced a gig in Brooklyn, there’s a new throwback Mets jersey I might like, and so on. More complete information would help that along, as — again — would the ability to prune things from my history, as I do with TiVo and Amazon recommendations. (Yes, this is tending an idealized self-image once more. I know that. Marketers are learning it too.) If the targeting doesn’t work, I’ll just tune it out — the last decade has given us all superb filters for marketing bullshit.

As for the perils of centralizing so much of this information, acknowledged. But to that, I’ll note two things. One is that Facebook has been responsive to users’ complaints — it pushes users, yes, but it also can be pushed back. Another is that I’d rather have a single place where I can see what’s being shared and with whom than have to monitor that across hundreds or thousands of websites and services, similar to how there’s now one site for accessing the various credit-report agencies.

As a publisher, meanwhile, I’m eager to use all this stuff here and on my baseball blog. I want to add Like buttons and Facebook sidebars and all these things. (And I’m sure publishers big and small feel the same way — this stuff is going to spread really quickly.) Partially that’s because I of course want to see more about who’s reading and better understand how things are connecting. But it’s also because I like the idea as a reader and think a lot of readers will feel the same way. There’s a lot more to understand about how Facebook will use this information, how accessible and visible it will be to us and how much control we’ll have over how it’s shared and used. It may be that I don’t like the answers as I begin to discover them. But for right now, I’m excited about all this as a publisher and as a reader. That seems like an encouraging sign.

A Ridiculous Foursquare Mission and Its Possibilities

Posted in Branding, Communities, Creating Context, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on April 16, 2010

So I just got back from doing something more than a little ridiculous.

It’s Foursquare Day (4/16, get it?) and this morning I saw via Twitter that people were unlocking a Foursquare Day badge somehow. I’ve become mildly addicted to Foursquare, to the extent that a 40-year-old father who can’t handle too many late nights in a row anymore can be, so of course I was immediately curious to see if I could get this badge. A quick Google search revealed that I could get it by checking in somewhere and shouting (i.e. sending a quick message to my Foursquare friends) “Happy foursquare day!”

Before I quite realized what I was doing, I was tallying up some errands. I decided I’d go down to Dumbo, the next neighborhood over from mine, where I’d mail something, go to the bank and get something to drink at Starbucks — where I could check in and claim my Foursquare Day badge. (I could have just cheated and checked in somewhere remotely, but that seemed wrong.)

There’s another Starbucks closer to my house. So why did I go to the one in Dumbo? Because among other things, if you visit five different Starbucks you get a Barista badge from Foursquare. The Dumbo one would be my second.

Here’s the thing: I don’t particularly like Starbucks.

In fact, I don’t even drink coffee.

You’re thinking this is insane behavior, and I have to agree. Yes, I’m mildly OCD and have a collector’s mentality. But I’m far from unique: Foursquare has been adding 50,000 users a week of late. This is insane behavior that’s worth taking notice of.

Look what I did to earn a badge that is nothing but colored pixels: I left my house when I hadn’t planned to, walked 10 minutes in a direction I wouldn’t normally have chosen, and bought a hot chocolate ($3.21) from a place I don’t normally patronize. One of the surest tests of a valuable product or service is if people will change their habits to use it, and Foursquare just passed that test with flying colors. (The trip wasn’t entirely silly: Near Starbucks I discovered an excellent Mac store I’d never seen before and stopped in to take a look. I’ll be back. Of course I checked in via Foursquare there, too and left a tip for other users that it looks like a good place.)

If I were a news organization, I would look to take advantage of behavior like mine posthaste. One of the ways news organizations can reconnect with valuable local audiences is to try to reclaim their places as the default places to find out what’s going on — to build out really great event calendars, guides to restaurants and bars, and so forth. Social media has emerged as a key player in how people decide what to do and where to go, and news organizations can leverage that.

Suppose your news organization partnered with Foursquare to create local badges based around food, shopping, nightlife, tourism and other things: For example, people who followed your organization on Foursquare and visited five restaurants recommended (or just reviewed) by you got a special badge. You’d get a bevy of people willing to have a relationship with you, as well as demographic information about them. By establishing that relationship, you’d have an opportunity to get those people to visit your site and engage with you. You’d have a chance to build loyalty and create value. All because people want little badges.

This isn’t new: The New York Times experimented with Foursquare during the Vancouver Olympics. Foursquare has deals with Zagat, Bravo and HBO along the lines I described. I’m not particularly loyal to any of those three companies, but I follow them on Foursquare so I can get their badges. Am I more receptive to their offerings because I’ve done that? Well, I just changed my daily habits and walked to another neighborhood to spend more than $3 at a coffee place when I don’t drink coffee. You tell me.

The Huffington Post Experiments With Twitter

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on April 8, 2010

Here’s interesting news, via David Kaplan at paidContent: The Huffington Post now has “Twitter editions” for its sections, maintained by the section editors. Here’s technology, for example.

What’s a Twitter edition? It’s a little bit of everything: Some traffic bait (top stories and some stories that are currently hot on Twitter), real-time news, a pair of Twitter lists, and some tools — you can tweet directly from the page (the default tweet is to check out whatever HuffPo Twitter edition you’re on, which is clever and endearingly cheesy), follow Twitterers on lists, and so forth. For folks who follow a certain HuffPo subject it’s a potentially handy resource, and the Twitter-uninitiated will find it a pretty good introduction to the service, which can be a bewildering blank slate at first. And of course, those who follow HuffPo’s lead into the Twitterverse will likely make HuffPo tweeters key building blocks of whatever feeds they construct.

The Twitter editions fit pretty well with HuffPo’s Social News endeavor (here’s my rather unutilized slice of it), its attempt to bring Facebook into the Huffington Post instead of surrendering its own site to Facebook. But most of all it feels like an experiment, and this spaghetti-at-the-wall quality is what I like best of all.

There’s no Twitter edition home page, Arriana Huffington tells Kaplan, because they want to see how people use the editions first. And then there’s this, from CEO Greg Eric Hippeau: “We’re one part social network, one part news content site. So for us, the question has always been how to use Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools and our content and integrate it with our advertisers. There’s a number of different ways we can do this. But for right now, along with everyone else, we’re still in the experimental stage and we’re testing a variety of methods and ideas.”

Exactly. I wish I saw such experiments everywhere.

Comments Off on The Huffington Post Experiments With Twitter

Comments and Anonymity

Posted in Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on April 2, 2010

Like a lot of people concerned with digital news, I followed the debate between Howard Owens and Mathew Ingram about comments and anonymity with great interest. I spent it listening, thinking and letting the two arguments test my assumptions — a process that culminated with posts from Owens and Ingram that nicely sum up two poles of the debate.

Owens offers an excellent justification for his position that anonymous comments not only degrade community but run counter to newspaper ethics; Ingram’s summation of his position is also excellent, acknowledging the unhappy side effects of anonymity but urging us to remember how it can drive more engagement, and arguing that healthy communities rely more on enforcing standards of behavior than with policies on anonymity.

After reading those two posts and thinking about them some more, I think I’m finally ready to jump in with my own thoughts, including a few things I’ve changed my mind about.

After mulling Owens’ points, I decided my position on anonymous comments had gotten tangled up with my thoughts on the bigger issue of anonymity itself, and that I’d fallen prey to some lazy thinking. My default position has always been that you hold your nose about anonymous comments because while anonymity may lead to bad behavior in discussing a proposed shopping mall, toddlers in bars or the merits of middle relievers, the lack of it will almost certainly preclude discussion of Chinese dissent, corporate malfeasance or the struggles of gay teens.

That’s probably true, but it’s also simplistic. Owens notes that the Batavian still gets anonymous tips — they just don’t come through anonymous comments. (Which really isn’t a surprise — why did I assume they would?) And do comment rules have to be the same for every topic? You should put up with hourly headaches policing the Kids in Bars forum because one day you might do something on Chinese dissent? I’ve urged news organizations to get much more sophisticated about understanding how readers came to an article and trying to drive loyalty by showing them relevant stories based on that information, which isn’t a trivial undertaking. So I think they can do that, but haven’t thought beyond a one-size-fits-all comment policy? Really?

Owens also offers a passionate case that anonymous comments run counter to newspaper ethics against anonymous letters to the editor and sources. I found that a welcome reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming practices of the embryonic consumer Web are somehow laws of physics. Anonymous comments aren’t some intrinsic part of the Web that automatically trump decades of newsroom values. To see them that way — which is a temptation when surveying the whole mess — is to let technology lead you around by the nose. We shouldn’t let that happen.

That said, the newspaper-ethics argument against anonymous comments feels a bit forced to me. I think it also conflates anonymous comments with the larger issue of anonymity, only from the other side of the issue. It also feels a bit too much like the old newspaper model of top-down control. I think a key to the transformation of a news organization is letting go of the idea that everything is controlled, of accepting the value of becoming a gateway to information and a key node within a loose network of news sources. At a fundamental level, you give up control when you link out, when you admit that part of curation is linking to the story your rival has that you don’t, when you aggregate community Twitter feeds into Twitter lists. Insisting on real names isn’t the same as deciding whose letter gets printed, I know, but reader comments feel like they fit better on the loose links/curation/community axis than they do on the rigid sources/letters to the editor axis.

Something Ingram said made me nod my head vigorously: “I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible.” Agreed. But I bet Owens would agree too, without seeing that as in any way undermining his case. There are many potential commenters who see that anonymous commenters have turned a forum into a cesspool and immediately decide not to engage. We’ve all had that experience, and I think it’s a huge problem for news organizations. In those cases, anonymity has bred conditions that suppress the kind of interaction we all want. What good is a principle if it consistently leads to dismal practice?

But for some people, an insistence on real names will also suppress interaction. Diving into a forum as a newcomer can be intimidating even for people who are confident in their ability to write and argue, to say nothing of how it feels for people who don’t have that confidence. Anonymity or a pseudonym can take the fear out of that first step, letting people wade in. They feel like they can retreat if things don’t go well, and can go deeper if things do.

I use the name BklynJace to comment in some forums, and this debate made me think about why. Looking over what I’ve written under that name, it’s not because it’s a cover for crass behavior (with a lamentable exception or two). Rather, I’ve used that name on forums I follow but aren’t sure I want to commit to as a regular participant, with the full weight of my real identity. An insistence on real names would have made me less likely to post, and I’m sure that goes double for lots of other people. And as Ingram notes, there are very healthy communities — such as Metafilter and Slashdot — where the lack of real names hasn’t overriden the commenting mores in the least.

So there we are, chasing each other round and round. You can get anonymous comments too entangled with the larger issue of anonymity, whether you’re for them or against them. Anonymous comments can get in the way of maximizing interaction, but so can real names.

Which makes me wonder if the answer isn’t a middle ground.

First off, there is no one-size-fits-all rule: The commenting parameters for a locally focused small-business site wouldn’t work for Deadspin, or vice versa, and those parameters should be flexible from discussion to discussion. But generally speaking, I think we should encourage the use of real names, discourage pseudonyms, and discourage anonymous comments even more vigorously — without eliminating the latter two ways of posting. (It might be more practical to make this two categories instead of one.)

One sign of a healthy community is that it defends itself instead of leaving that to moderators, and I think that starts with giving participants tools to use in that defense. If you allow unverified comments, make the default that they’re hidden or shown in lighter type, while allowing readers to change those settings. (Gawker and the Wall Street Journal both offer variants of this.) Atop this foundation, let participants rate posts up or down, possibly allowing good but unverified stuff to break through the “verified” floor and bad but verified stuff to sink below it. Let participants report posts and either ignore or follow other participants.

My hope would be that those tools would allow a community to defend itself more easily and effectively, freeing moderators to deal with abuse reports and banning vandals. As a final check, I’d implement Lisa Williams‘ suggestion of moderating the first X comments from new users — few trolls can masquerade as decent sorts that long, particularly if their handiwork will be quickly removed afterwards anyway.

Perhaps I’ve fallen into the trap of equivocation, but I really feel like I see both sides. I think anonymity taxes moderators and breeds poor community experiences, yet I also think that real names run the risk of scaring away potentially valuable contributors. Perhaps there’s a technological solution that will let us explore the pluses and minuses from a better starting point.

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.

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

Stop Being a Hammer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: