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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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.

To Burn the Boats, or Not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

More Google Sound and Fury

Posted in Fun With Metaphors, Social Media, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on December 2, 2009

In the last two days, Google has made some changes to Google News, allowing publishers more control over how articles can be viewed for free. Yesterday, Google said it will let publishers limit readers to five free articles per day, a modification to its First Click Free program, and offered to crawl and index preview pages made available, labeling them in search results as Subscription.  This morning, Google unveiled a web crawler specifically for Google News, allowing publishers to tweak their robots.txt file to exclude Google News but not regular search, or to further slice and dice what’s visible where.

All very interesting given the war of words between Google and publishers calling the search engine giant all manner of nasty names (nobody likes being called an intestinal parasite), a charge now led by Rupert Murdoch, who’s elbowed the Associated Press aside to head the brigade. This war has intensified of late, with word of talks between Murdoch’s News Corp. and Microsoft that could see News Corp. remove its news from Google in favor of Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine — and mutterings that News Corp. might challenge whether fair-use laws apply to aggregators. Google has fired back, in its blandly live-and-let-live way — I was amused to note that Google couldn’t resist making publishers look backwards by noting that they’d already been able to request being left out of Google News.

This is interesting political theater, but like a lot of political theater I maintain it doesn’t mean much.

First off, publishers’ paywalls aren’t fixed now, but then they weren’t cracked before in any meaningful way. On Computerworld, Seth Weintraub notes that “it is only going to be slightly more difficult to get around paywalls using the Google trick” — for instance, you could evade the five-articles-per-day limit by using a different browser in which you’re not logged into your Google account. Weintraub notes that “you know your sneaky little trick of getting around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall is mainstream if they demonstrate it on the NBC primetime show the Office,” which naturally leads to an embed of the now-famous clip in which Jim gets through to a paywalled Journal article in seconds flat. All true, but I think this misses something: In the show, only two of the assembled Dunder Mifflin employees know the paywall trick. As long as those percentages hold up, publishers with paywalls aren’t actually concerned about leaky paywalls, except for their usefulness in crying woe and trying to extract something from Google. This is the same misconception I objected to when NBC consultant Jeff Gralnick recently raised the specter of “some smart 12-year-old” getting around technological barriers — folks interested in digital journalism like playing around with technology, and so we tend to forget that most people don’t. (And I bet Computerworld bloggers run rings around us.) The idea of technological barriers isn’t to keep out the Jim Halperts of the world — that never works. Rather, it’s to keep out the Oscars and Dwights.

Nor am I worried that alliances between publishers and Bing would lead to a world of Balkanized search, a scenario raised by Ken Auletta in a New York Times conversation between him and Fred Wilson, moderated by John Markoff. The reason is the growing power of social search, which I explored in my last post. Auletta discusses social search too, asking, “Would you rather have the advice of 20 friends whom you know and trust and who share their experience with cameras, or 20,000 or so links from a Google search?” He’s right that we’ll opt for the former, but it’s not an either-or scenario: As Wilson notes, “I don’t see search and social as disconnected islands. I see them as connected important features that complement each other.” I’d take the metaphor a step further and say social search is the water that will connect all the islands. The speed of social search is uncanny — a good Twitter news feed will deliver the desired information from a vast range of sources, making the question of which engine indexes that information irrelevant.

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Magic and Marvelous Boxes, and the Future of Newsrooms

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors, Long-Form Journalism, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on October 27, 2009

Having slept on the ideas raised by Cody Brown’s latest thought-provoking essay, I find an enormous amount to like, but one big question that still nags at me: Is there still a role for traditional reporters, backed by traditional newsrooms?

Hold the torches and pitchforks. By asking that, I’m not trying to restore reporters to their status as a priestly caste ordained by j-schools, sustained by newsroom sacraments and beset by infidels. I’m not implying that I think Brown’s idea of a news ecosystem based on the “direct method” of sharing and disseminating news will be the death of democracy or anything like that. I’m not arguing that the traditional, print-first newspaper model can be saved, or particularly needs to be. (To the contrary, in fact.) I’d be sad to see some cherished news institutions go, but that’s nostalgia talking, not a lack of faith in the alternatives. For the most part I agree that alternatives will appear, and that we need to be patient as a wealth of experiments are tried and assessed and retried.

This isn’t a traditionalist’s defense of legacy news methods — or at least I don’t think it is. Rather, I think my questions are a little different: In this new news ecosystem, do we need professional reporters and newsrooms? If so, for what? And where will they come from?

Perhaps my favorite thing in Brown’s essay is the way he traces the evolution of the “trustee method” of creating and organizing news that’s factual, neutral and fair from a 19th-century market strategy of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs into an article of journalistic faith. Brown rightly notes that the Ochs strategy was so successful that we now get confused between the method and the desired outcome. And he points out that a lot of our Web success stories — the Huffington Post, Gawker and their ilk — can be viewed as just trustee-method organizations without presses and delivery trucks. The zinger is a pair of graphics with a cheekily labeled “Magic Journalism Box” on the left and a public cloud on the right. In the Ochs model the box and the cloud are connected through the agency of reporters and a single red line of reader reaction; in the New Media model the only difference is there are more red lines.

In discussing public discourse online, Brown brings the graphic back, with a twist — the Magic Journalism Box and the reporters are blurred, not part of the equation, and the red lines connect points in the crowd.

OK, but where’s the Box in the direct-method ecosystem? Do we still need it? And what should it be called? (Magic Journalism Box is a nice rhetorical device, but I’m not sure it’s entirely fair.)

Some would say the Box is no longer needed: Professional reporters will be replaced by users creating and sharing their own news and by sources themselves, speaking directly to readers without journalists as intermediaries. (See Dave Winer on the latter point.) For the most part, I agree. Yes, it’s true that a lot of conversation in the blogosphere begins with news stories produced in the traditional manner — but that’s because there’s still a lot of that news, from sources that still have a lot of influence. I’m sure the conversation will be just as robust as new sources of news arise and gain their own influence. (And actually, I’ve always thought the City Council would get covered.)

But does that leave anything out? The part that worries me is what’s sometimes called accountability journalism. Not all sources want to speak to the public — some don’t want the public to see them as sources at all. And some sources are too vulnerable or damaged to tell their own stories in ways that will be heard or believed. The public can’t discuss stories it doesn’t know exist.

Brown does a good job discussing how fluid public leverage (a vigorous retweet campaign on Twitter, for instance) can replace institutional brand leverage. But can fluid public leverage find and hold to account sources that are trying to remain hidden? Can it advocate for the voiceless? Can the direct method ferret out information about and tell the story of, say, the care of veterans at Walter Reed or the LIRR disability scandal? Or is this one aspect of journalism that does require “professional” journalists, backed by a certain amount of institutional clout? Brown references a clever Clay Shirky metaphor about how we’ve forgotten that a few daring “amateur” drivers of the first cars fired their “professional” chauffeurs/mechanics and took the wheel themselves. But it strikes me that the question isn’t about learning to drive, but how you drive to places that are behind locked gates or in areas powerful people don’t want mapped.

One thing I thought the recent Downie/Schudson report zeroed in on effectively was the value of newsrooms — not print newspapers, but newsrooms — in supporting the infrastructure required for accountability journalism. This isn’t a disparagement of the direct method or a defense of the trustee method, but a question: Can the public produce such accountability journalism on a significant scale? Can individual reporters do it? Do you need newsrooms of a certain size to accomplish it? If so, where do they come from? Or do they no longer exist?

As part of that, I wonder if Brown doesn’t conflate news production and news dissemination. I absolutely agree with his conclusion that the public no longer needs to be told what’s news, and can share and disseminate it on its own — like a  lot of people, I increasingly create my own “bundle” of news, and the idea of accepting one produced by a single news organization now seems strange. As those bundles fall apart, news will be increasingly decentralized and decoupled from news organizations, replaced by a public that carves out its own beats within which news is shared, iterated, commented on and corrected. All to the good. But I maintain those news organizations may have a valuable role to play in news production.

If so, where do they fit? Brown’s Magic Journalism Box also appeared in his equally evocative dissection of “batch” processing vs. real-time processing. (His essay is here, and here’s my reaction.) Papers have to make that process more open, turning the Magic Journalism Box into an Marvelous Glass Box, with an occasional opaque panel to shield internal disputes, sources that need protecting and off-the-record material. If big news organizations can do that, perhaps they have a place in the new ecosystem, alongside a huge host of new boxes of all shapes and sizes, producing news that a public will organize and share as it sees fit.

Reactions to Nieman, Part 2

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors, Going Local, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on September 18, 2009

Yesterday’s post was becoming a goat-choker, so I split it up into two parts. Here’s some more reaction to the excellent Nieman Report on journalism and social media:

Steve Buttry writes about the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel’s running “locals” in the 1970s — short items “submitted by area busybodies, telling who was visiting whom, who was ill and who had just returned from vacation.” His remembrance, in turn, made me recall that such columns were in their final days at the New Orleans Times-Picayune when I arrived there as the World’s Greenest Intern in 1989.

Like Buttry, in my youth I regarded the locals as an odd sideshow to the business of “real journalism.” Now, they look like the kind of small-scale, intensely community-focused news we perhaps ought not to have abandoned, and might revisit as part of the effort to rebuild ties with readers. Buttry, referencing his own “C3” model, imagines community moments like those noted in the locals as gateways for connecting readers with sellers of gifts and flowers. For me, it’s a valuable reminder that the past can be an instructive prelude. The locals were Facebook with faces. They were user-generated content when it wasn’t a buzzword. They were hyperlocal without the prefix. (Or maybe with a different, mellower prefix? Easylocal!) In trying to rebuild community, why not look at how we used to do it?

As for MyReporter.com, it’s brilliant. As Vaughn Hagerty explains, readers ask questions of the newsroom of the Wilmington StarNews, and the newsroom tells the questioner its plan for handling the question, then assigns someone to answer it. (If questions are too specific or meant to resolve disputes, the paper suggests possible resources for the questioner.) The idea came out of a challenge to the staff to be a help desk for the community, and it’s been that. It’s also creating a Wiki of resources for the community, and proving a source of story ideas. (For instance, Hagerty says it’s led the StarNews to focus more resources on transportation and development issues.) I also imagine it’s a great way to rebuild trust between the community and the newspaper.

One article in the report struck me as off the mark, though — Robert Picard‘s urging that newspapers reconsider the mantra that they make their news available “anytime, anywhere, on any platform.” Noting papers’ constrained budgets, Picard thinks newspapers should demand to know how new technologies will generate money, and look askance at technologies for which there isn’t an answer.

As with Paul Farhi’s suggestion that papers retreat from the Web, this would be perfectly sensible if the newspaper industry’s current business model was the right one for a healthy, long-term future. But I don’t think it is. To steal from my own comment on Picard’s piece, the print-centric business model is a burning raft — and when you’re on a burning raft, you have to plan differently. True, that dark spot on the horizon might not be the mainland. It might be a little island where we’ll live rather limited lives. It might not have water or a source of food. It might only be a mirage. We don’t know what will happen when we reach it — but we can predict what will happen if we stay here.

Given that the raft is burning, now’s not the time for a symposium on the ROI of rowing.

Dean Singleton’s Metaphor

Posted in Cultural Change, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on April 7, 2009

At PaidContent.org, Staci D. Kramer chats with Associated Press chairman (and MediaNews CEO) Dean Singleton about the AP’s Monday announcement that it’s going to … do something. (Seriously, that’s pretty much all the AP said.) What really jumped out at me from the back-and-forth was this Singleton quote: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time. Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

Really?

Returns tend to diminish quickly in games of No, It’s More Like This Metaphor, but I can’t let that one go by, because it seems really off to me. Print is not the meat, and online is neither the salt nor the pepper. The news is the meat — print vs. online is a discussion of how the meat is raised, prepared, delivered and packaged, which is something totally different.

With that new starting point, let’s try the metaphor again and see where it gets us. (Please note: I’m not using butcher as a charged metaphor — I’m just going with what I was given.)

Meat used to be obtained directly from butchers who knew an enormous amount about cattle and had served long apprenticeships that gave them expertise in cutting and preparing meat — and who were also pretty much your only source if you wanted to put steaks or burgers on the table. Now consumers overwhelmingly want to go to the big new shiny supermarkets that have moved into town. They like not having to go from store to store for everything they need and they’ve become infatuated with all these extra choices. And the way they obtain meat is now very different: They want it waiting for them packaged in an assortment of cuts, and they no longer spend an enormous amount of time chatting with the butchers who work for the supermarkets and making use of their training and their advice.

A lot of butchers complain that this new way of doing things isn’t as good as the old way. They’re working harder for less — and tragically, fewer of them are working at all. They argue that customers will no longer pay what the best cuts of meat really cost, and are going home with inferior steaks and chops. Some customers are even buying their meat outside the supermarket, at delis and convenience stores and from guys setting up little roadside smokehouses. Whereever they’re getting it, a lot of customers seem like they no longer really understand how that meat gets to their table, going through life completely ignorant of all the time and care and money it takes to make a good steak.

And you know what? The butchers may well be right about all this. They are working harder for less money, and there is reason to worry that their skills will be lost, and that we will be lessened for not understanding how food gets to our tables. And it’s not the butchers’ fault — it was their bosses who responded to the rise of supermarkets by opening lackluster ones when they bothered opening them at all.

But the customers have spoken. Right or wrong, they aren’t going to the neighborhood butchers in sufficient numbers to support all the ones who used to have shops. And despite the campaigns of some in the Butchers Guild, no one is going to order the supermarkets closed or give butcher shops extra money to do things they old way or succeed in taking the meat out of supermarkets or cajole supermarkets into paying far more for meat.

If you’re a butcher or responsible for the livelihood of butchers, what do you do? Well, you could gulp and open your own shop anyway — some entrepreneurial butchers still do pretty well, even today. You could try an approach nobody’s tried before — maybe there are customers who will pay a premium for you to deliver meat to their homes and prepare it in front of them, with an explanation of how it was raised and how best to cook it.

Or while trying these things, you could work at translating a butcher’s skills to the new setting of the supermarket, figuring out which tried-and-true skills still have value and which new skills butchers need to learn. Because we all have to eat.

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