Reinventing the Newsroom

Quick Thoughts on Bezos Buying the Post

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on August 5, 2013

(cross-posted from my Tumblr)

A couple of blocks from my house there’s a park where people play soccer. A few years ago the city put down artificial turf there, replacing what had been an expanse of dust and scattered scraggly grass. A few people raised a ruckus about this, complaining about the environment, aesthetics, and what have you. They wanted the city to maintain natural grass that could stand up to constant soccer, frisbee, families, etc. It didn’t deter them in the least that this was impossible — the only real choice was between artificial turf or dust.

Which brings me to the Washington Post. Yes, some people are concerned about the owner of Amazon controlling the paper that’s still the premier read in the nation’s capital, where lobbyists reign and laws are made. Some people have reacted to the news by decrying Amazon’s labor practices, economic models, effect on industries it’s subverted, etc.

All points worth making, but they ignore something fundamental: The choice for the Post — like the vast majority of legacy metro newspapers — was between artificial turf and dust. The Post wasn’t going to get bigger. It wasn’t going to turn nimbly to try new things. It wasn’t going to be able to reinvent itself against a fleet of smaller competitors, each zeroing in on a chunk of its business without having to worry about shoring up a larger enterprise. No, the Post was going to keep getting smaller and smaller while trying to bridge its own contradictions.

Now, assuming Jeff Bezos will spend more of his own money than the $250 million he’s already plunked down, the Post has money and time to experiment and try to become something new. Which means it has a chance to survive.

The Post no longer has to answer to shareholders, who have done enormous damage to newspapers by assuming that the profits from an anomalous period in history were the norm. And if Bezos brings the same acumen to the news business that he’s brought to every other business that’s now part of the Amazon empire, the Post will have a chance to radically reinvent itself in ways it wasn’t going to be able to explore so long as it was run as a publicly traded company or by career newspaper people.

That’s not an indictment of the Post’s previous owners; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the enormous challenge facing today’s news organizations.

The modern newspaper is doomed, but it’s been living on borrowed time for decades. That’s because the traditional newspaper business isn’t really about information, let alone civics or democracy. It’s about printing and distribution within geographic protections. And the failure to understand that — or, more fairly, to be able to act on that understanding — is what’s devastated the news business.

For a couple of centuries, if you wanted to sell something — a bale of hay or a couch or a Chevy — the only practical way to do it was to pay your local printing-and-distribution monopolist for an ad.

Some people are happy reading nothing but bundles of ads, but most people aren’t. So the printing-and-distribution monopolists looked for other information to go around those ads. They hired people to write about sports and review movies and recount crimes and talk about who was visiting whom and opine about politics and sometimes to explain complicated stuff happening far away. The printing-and-distribution monopolists created bundles of information designed to appeal to people in the geographic area they controlled. Very few people in that area were interested in all of that information, but enough of them were interested in some of it to buy the paper and see the ads and keep the people who bought the ads happy.

That industry no longer exists. The printing and distribution monopoly has been shattered — it’s been replaced by my phone, of all things. Geography no longer limits the information available to me — that same phone will bring me information from the entire world. With the exception of small local papers, the newspaper industry continues to exist because of the habits and sentimental attachments of an ever-shrinking segment of aging readers. It’s not dead, but it’s doomed.

The news industry, on the other hand, is alive — in fact, it’s thriving. But it’s been forcibly separated from the revenue streams that allowed it to exist. New ones have to be discovered. We don’t know where they’ll be found or what they’ll pay for. But the people who are going to discover them will be the people who work in new digital industries, not the custodians of vanished ones.

They’ll be people like Jeff Bezos. At least let’s hope so.

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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.

Sizing Up the New York Times’ Paid-Access Plan

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2011

This is an expansion and rewrite of thoughts first shared at the invitation of Nieman Journalism Lab, as presented here:

First up, thoughts on the Times’ actual plan.

We should all remember that this is the beginning of the Times’ strategy, not its finished form. The Financial Times is the paper that’s had the most success with the so-called metered model, and they’ve tweaked that model six ways to Sunday since introducing it. The Times will do the same. One of the basic principles of digital anything, from storytelling to design, is that it’s iterative — you experiment and learn and refine. Any sane paid-access plans will be iterative too — yet the Times’ first attempt was treated as if it had been handed down from Mount Sulzberger carved in stone.

So where would I iterate? Having a different cost scale based on device strikes me as a short-term approach that flies in the face of where our changing digital habits will lead us — the idea that people will pay extra for different experiences as delivered by different devices is worth exploring, but asking them to pay extra for the same information displayed in a different form factor won’t work in the long run, and maybe even not the medium one. On the flip side, I think free access for all home-delivery subscribers is too timid — I’d gladly pay for the Times in digital form, but I won’t have to because I have Saturday/Sunday home delivery. By ignoring bundles of print twice a week, I actually save money on what I’d pay for full digital access. (Though see Nieman’s Joshua Benton on why this might make more sense than I think.)

One thing I wouldn’t worry about — at all — is that the paid-access restrictions can be evaded. This is seemingly always raised by digital-media pundits, which is somewhat understandable: A lot of us are comfortable with technology and like playing with it. But because that’s true of us and a lot of folks we talk shop with, we overestimate how true it is of everybody else.

Here’s Cory Doctorow, for instance: “lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times’s site has no way to know how many pages you’ve seen this month”. Alternately, he imagines that someone will create “a browser redirection service that pipes links to nytimes.com through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren’t blocked by the paywall; or write a browser extension that sets ‘referer=twitter.com/$VALID_TWEET_GUID’, or some other clever measure that has probably already been posted to the comments below”. The Times, Doctorow predicts, will then “build all kinds of countermeasures to detect and thwart cookie-blocking, referer spoofing, and suchlike.”

If the Times’ leaders are smart, they’ll do no such thing, because there’s a huge audience of people out there who would laugh out loud at anything that posits turning off cookies as the easiest bit of technological trickery, even without that blithe “of course.” There are always going to be technologically adept folks who like getting around barriers, and less-adept folks who have more time than money. The effort required to thwart them isn’t worth it, particularly since it makes it more likely that you’ll accidentally shut out law-abiding people. It makes far more sense to focus on folks who either don’t know how to play techno-ninja or don’t consider it worth the effort, because they’re willing to pay a reasonable price for an experience that isn’t a pain in the ass.

Other industries prove the point. If I hear a song I like and want a digital download of it, I can get one for free with a little work. I can search for it on a music blog that has downloadable MP3s that haven’t expired. I can find a torrent of it. I can stream it and capture the audio. I can do a lot of things. If your starting point in assessing a plan is whether its technological safeguards can be evaded, you’d assume the digital-music industry couldn’t exist. In fact, it’s worth $5 billion a year.  (I know what you’re about to say. Hold that thought for a moment.)

Closer to home, remember the 2009 episode of “The Office” in which the Dunder Mifflin staff wants to read a Wall Street Journal article but are flummoxed by the paywall? After asking “Are you serious?” Jim gets through to the article, probably using the old trick of searching for the article title in Google and accessing it through Google News. (See it here — the relevant scene begins around the 2:30 mark.) Paid-access critics had a field day, with one noting that “you know your sneaky little trick of getting around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall is mainstream if they demonstrate it” on an NBC prime-time show. But this misses something pretty basic: Two people at Dunder Mifflin knew the trick, but 10 didn’t. Smart publishers don’t have to worry about leaky paywalls, because Jim Halperts are — despite what they themselves think — relatively rare.

I think there are two much bigger problems faced by news organizations contemplating paid access: unfortunate vocabulary and outsized expectations.

First up, the industry ought to hold a contest to find a term to replace “paywall,” because it’s a self-defeating word for what organizations are trying to do. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but a NYT reader’s comment on the announcement brought it home: “I am sorry to say that I will no longer be able to read the NYTimes online.” But she will! She can read 20 articles per month, and if she maxes that out she can read five a day through Google, or as many as she wants through Facebook, Twitter, or blogs. That’s quite a lot for free. What the “metered model” (a terrible term in its own right) really does is define who a publication’s most-loyal readers are and try to convert them to paid supporters. It’s more like a narrowcasted pledge drive than a paywall. If paid access were framed in those terms, I think there’d be fewer misapprehensions like the commenter’s and more support among loyalists.

But this gets us to my second point, about expectations. By their nature, paid-access approaches like this one are likely to yield relatively small returns. Even if they’re very successful in converting loyalists, they’re fishing in an awfully small pond — one that’s wisely chosen but far too small to sustain newsgathering operations of the size and scope seen in print’s heyday. (And this gets back to the music industry: $5 billion is pretty good, but the industry used to be a whole lot larger.) The traditional newspaper industry is going to get a lot smaller even if approaches such as the Times’ model work. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not — you can’t run an industry still sized for analog dollars on digital dimes. To pretend otherwise ensures that all paid-access approaches will be judged against something they can’t compete with, and seen as failures.

On Denton, Paton, Profanity and Other Topics

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on December 13, 2010

Some quick thoughts on recent topics making the digital-journalism rounds:

Gawker is changing the template for its sites, and a while back Nick Denton explained the thinking behind the new look. As always with Denton, he makes a lot of very smart points and dresses them up in a fair amount of showmanship.

The foundation of the Gawker redesign is that it’s ditching the traditional reverse-chronological blog design. Now there’s a splash story presented in full on the left and a scrollable series of headlines on the right. Denton notes that “every inside page will hew to the same template as the front page. No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere, he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items.”

In other words, depending on your philosophical bent you could say there will be no home page, every page will be a home page, or both. (The waning importance of home pages is a subject of longstanding interest to me.) I discussed what this means for sports sections in my weekly column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, but the basic lesson is the same for any news organization: Any article can be a window into a site, and in our era of search and social media, the model built around a homepage and navigation is increasingly out of step with the fragmented nature of how we find and read news. As Denton himself notes, “referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the start of the year; and audience spikes appear to be larger than ever before. We can turn more of those drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page.”

It’s hard to imagine this trend reversing as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous, which means all the sweat and pain going into site redesigns is increasingly a misallocated effort. In a funny way, news people are a poor choice to design newspapers: We tend to be news junkies, and as such we have a well-honed understanding of how to navigate a newspaper in physical or digital form. But a lot of casual readers aren’t like us. Their home page is increasingly likely to be Facebook, and they may never see the front page of Gawker or the New York Times or whatever organization is the source of a story.

The reaction to Denton’s explainer was interesting. Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke down the likely effects of the new format on Gawker’s page views, predicting it will lead to a decline in views (because there will be fewer clicks to reach what you want to read) and kill Gawker’s sponsored posts, since the flow of reverse-chron news is marginalized, making it less likely that sponsored posts will be encountered within the flow. “There’s a whopping irony here,” he noted. “Denton was the first person to turn blogging into a large-scale commercial venture: he bet on the potential of the blog medium earlier than anybody else, and to a large degree he’s personally responsible for the reputation that blogs have among the population at large. He then brought on [Chris] Batty to try to sell ads against this strange new reverse-chronological stream of disparate posts. Now, however, it’s Batty who is fighting for what he calls the ‘narrative carrying capacity’ of that reverse-chronological stream: it’s Batty, the ad guy, fighting to preserve what you might call the essence of blog. And it’s Denton, the original Blogfather, who’s aggressively throwing it away.”

And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton started off with a very interesting historical parallel, showing a century-old NYT front page that’s a hopeless jumble of text and fonts, without the cues of modern newspaper design that help us navigate. “This change happened at The Times — and at other newspapers — over a number of decades as designers and editors figured out that readers didn’t want more news, but instead wanted a more concise culling of news,” he writes. “Now we’re starting to see these types of design and editorial changes take place with blogs and Web sites online.”

* * *

Earlier this month, Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton walked an audience at the INMA Transformation of News summit through his blueprint for digital-first newspapers and tackling the necessary organizational and cultural change. I can’t do better than the 140 characters I used to call it out on Twitter, so here it is again: “If someone could only read one thing on changing the future of #newspapers, I’d have them read this.”

* * *

Finally, here’s my take (also from NSJC) on whether the web is changing the rules for how news organizations deal with profanity.

What Wired Left Out of Its Web Eulogy

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors, IPad, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on August 19, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Maybe you heard: The web has been declared dead, and everybody’s mad about it.

I’ll get to checking the web’s vital signs in a moment, but one thing is clear: The hype and hucksterism of packaging, promoting, and presenting magazine articles is very much alive. I found Chris Anderson’s Wired article and Michael Wolff’s sidebar pretty nuanced and consistently interesting, which made for an awkward fit with the blaring headlines and full-bore PR push.

But looking past this annoyance, Anderson’s article makes a number of solid points — some I hadn’t thought of and some that are useful reminders of how much things have changed in the past few years. (For further reading, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a terrific take on why the model of continuous technological revolution and replacement isn’t really correct and doesn’t serve us well, and Boing Boing nails why the graphic included in the Wired package is misleading.)

Still, Anderson almost lost me at hello. Yes, I like to use my iPad for email — and I frequently check out Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times on it. But for the latter three, I don’t use apps but the browser itself (in my case, AtomicWeb). As I’ve written before, so far the iPad’s killer app is the browser — more specifically, the chance to have a speedy, readable web experience that doesn’t require you to peer at a tiny screen or sit down in front of a laptop or desktop. So going by Anderson’s own opening examples, the web isn’t dead for me — better to say that apps are in the NICU.

But I couldn’t argue with this: “Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.” That’s absolutely correct, as is Anderson’s observation that this many-platform state of affairs is “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).”

That not-going-to-the-screen is critical, and — again — a big reason that the iPad has been a hit. But as my iPad habits show, that doesn’t necessarily imply a substitution of apps for the web. Nor, as Anderson himself notes, are such substitutions really a rejection of the web. It would have been less compelling but more accurate to say that the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day. Sometimes a contact point is a different presentation of the web, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.

It’s also interesting to ask whether users of various devices care — and whether they should. Anderson brings up push technology and, with it, PointCast, a name that made me shudder reflexively. A long time ago, WSJ.com (like most every media company of the time) became infatuated with push, going as far as to appoint a full-time editor for it. It was tedious and horrible, a technology in search of an audience, and our entire newsroom was thrilled when the spell was broken and the damn thing went away. But Anderson notes that while PointCast didn’t work, push sure did. Push is now so ubiquitous that we only notice its absence: When I’m outside the U.S. and have to turn off push notifications to my phone, I have the same in-limbo feeling I used to get when I was away from my computer for a couple of days.

The problem with the first incarnation of push was that the only contact point was the computer screen, meaning information often wasn’t pushed close enough to you, or was being pushed down the same pipe you were trying to use for something else. Now, information is pushed to the web — and to smartphones and tablets and game consoles and social networks and everything else — and push has vanished into the fabric of How Things Are.

Generally, I think the same is true of the web vs. other methods of digital interaction — which is why the over-hyped delivery of the Wired article seemed so unfortunate. There isn’t a zero-sum game between the web and other ways of presenting information to customers — they all have their role in consumers’ lives, and increasingly form a spectrum to be tapped into as people choose. Even if apps and other methods of accessing and presenting that information take more parts of that spectrum away from the open web, I doubt content companies, telcos, or anybody else will kill the open web or even do it much damage.

Frankly, both Anderson and Wolff do a good job of showing how adherence to the idea of the open web has calcified into dogma. Before the iPad appeared, there was a lot of chatter about closed systems that I found elitist and tiresome, with people who ought to know better dismissing those who don’t want to tinker with settings or create content as fools or sheep. Near the end of his article, Anderson seems to briefly fall into this same trap, writing that “an entire generation has grown up in front of a browser. The exploration of a new world has turned into business as usual. We get the web. It’s part of our life. And we just want to use the services that make our life better. Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the status quo grows. Blame human nature. As much as we intellectually appreciate openness, at the end of the day we favor the easiest path.”

That’s smart, except for the “blame human nature” part. Of course we favor the easiest path. The easiest path to doing something you want to do has a lot to recommend it — particularly if it’s something you do every day! I’m writing this blog post — creating something — using open web tools. Since this post is getting kinda long, I might prefer to read it on my iPad, closed system and all. The two co-exist perfectly happily. Ultimately, the web, mobile and otherwise, else will blend in consumers’ minds, with the distinction between the web and other ways of accessing digital information of interest only to those who remember when such distinctions mattered and/or who have to dig into systems’ technological guts. There’s nothing wrong with that blending at all — frankly, it would be a little disappointing if we stayed so technologically silo’ed that these things remained separate.

Even if “big content” flows through delivery methods that are less open and more controlled, anybody with bandwidth will still be able to create marvelous things on the open web using an amazing selection of free tools. As various technological kinks are worked out, traffic and attention will flow seamlessly among the various ways of accessing digital information. And social search and discovery will increasingly counteract industrial search and discovery, providing alternate ways of finding and sharing content through algorithms that reward popularity and scale. People who create good content (as well as a lot of content that’s ephemeral but amusing or diverting) will still find themselves with an audience, ensuring a steady flow of unlikely YouTube hits, Twitter phenomena, and hot blogs. The web isn’t dead — it’s just finding its niche. But that niche is pretty huge. The web will remain vigorous and important, while apps and mobile notifications and social networks grow in importance alongside it.

More on ‘Content Farms’

Posted in Content Farms, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on July 7, 2010

I’m quoted in Dylan Stableford’s very good piece about Demand Media and other so-called content farms over at TheWrap. (There’s some very smart stuff in the comments as well.)

For those who’ve arrived here because of that article, you can read my first post on Demand Media here, and a more-nuanced take looking at articles it supplied to USA Today here. I also did a roundup of posts about content farms here that may be useful for further reading.

Anyway, a few more thoughts.

I don’t think what Demand and its ilk do is “evil” — “unfortunate” is a better word. And my concern isn’t that companies like Demand and Associated Content will drive down writers’ salaries or that the compensation built into their model is “too low,” whatever “too low” means. That’s unfortunate, sure, but it’s just the pitiless economics of supply and demand at work — there would have been some other actor if Demand had never existed. Rather, what bugs me is the quality of the stuff these companies produce, and what it does to search. (See Daniel Roth’s Wired article for a deeper exploration of that.)

Nor does it bug me that content-farm bosses and writers aren’t journalists, which is a charge you’ll find tossed around here and there. First off, a lot of their writers actually are journalists who are trying to get by in extremely trying times for the profession. Second, I think it’s elitist nonsense to say you need some fancy degree or seal of approval to practice journalism. Third, the captains of the news industry don’t exactly have a glittering record when it comes to figuring out their own business.

Demand and AC produce some helpful articles, particularly step-by-step processes and tutorials. I can never remember how to take a screen shot on my Mac, for instance, and inevitably wind up at the same eHow article reminding me how to do it. That’s valuable information that I’m happy to get from them, and that could complement news organizations’ offerings nicely.

My objection is that when you get beyond tutorials and simple how-tos, the quality of the content produced by Demand, AC and others is mostly poor. (That’s my opinion — your mileage may vary of course. Go look at the USA Today travel tips and draw your own conclusions.) Granted, there’s a lot of poor content out there — but content-farm stuff is specifically shaped and molded to game Google and appear higher in search results, which wastes people’s time. And the real problem, as I told Stableford, is that the business model makes it very difficult to produce good content. There just isn’t time to do it profitably.

A commenter on Stableford’s article raised a good question: “Has anyone read copy with an editor’s eye in small- and medium-sized newspapers? With the exception of the NY Times and the Washington Post (the LA Times can’t even compare these days), most of the stories read as first drafts. They’re poorly written and grossly undersourced. The quality of writing and reporting has gone down the toilet.”

Sadly, this is too often true. But I’d say that’s an unfortunate product of years of cost-cutting and an industry in terrible distress — it’s not supposed to be that way. With the economics of Demand and its ilk, though, it’s the logical outcome.

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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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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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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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.

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