Reinventing the Newsroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A ‘Yes, But’ for Bill Keller on Narrative

Posted in Going Local, IPad, Long-Form Journalism, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 28, 2010

Last weekend New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke at Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference, and offered a rigorous defense of long-form stories. (As well as saying the Times wants to “kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.” Well then.)

As I’ve written before, I’m on Keller’s side in this one: I maintain that there will be renewed interest in long-form journalism, principally because it’s hard to copy or briefly summarize. Yet, for all that, I think Keller’s attempts to shoot down three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing missed the mark a bit. (Caveats: I’d expect Keller to be in rally-the-troops mode at such a conference, and I’m not working off his actual remarks.)

Keller’s first threat: the decline of publishing and economic stresses that have shrunk newsrooms and dumbed down copy. His proof that this isn’t true is the Times’ collaboration with ProPublica on its Pulitzer-winning investigative story of death in post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m glad that wonderful story exists, and applaud ProPublica’s work not just to tell great stories but to create great tools for other news organizations. But if I’d told you 10 years ago that the Times would win a Pulitzer in partnership with a non-profit news organization, your reaction probably wouldn’t have been, “What a great new avenue for journalism!” Rather, I bet it would have been something along the lines of “What’s happened that the Times needs to partner with someone?” ProPublica exists because the Sandlers saw that accountability journalism was imperiled.

Keller’s second threat is the idea that people don’t read anymore, a statement made two years ago by Steve Jobs. Keller notes that the Times’ long-form stories are mainstays of the paper’s list of most emailed articles, and gets off a great line to that effect: “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.” Now, laying this at Jobs’s feet is good for an ironic twist, given the hopes people have for the iPad, but it’s worth remembering that Jobs made those comments as part of an attack on the Kindle. Denigrating not just a product but an entire product category is pretty much SOP for Jobs when a new Apple product has reached the twinkle-in-his-eye phase. And while I stubbornly maintain people will read great stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all encourage more intimate, leisurely reading, but they aren’t going to unwind that basic ruthlessness.

Keller’s third threat is that crowdsourcing and user-generated content is degrading newspapers’ authority. Here, I think Keller undermined his case by saying that “if I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.” That’s a lazy metaphor that Keller’s too smart for: A lot of journalism isn’t surgery. I wouldn’t go to a citizen surgeon, but I do rely on some very talented citizen journalists for my Brooklyn news, and while I like the Times’ Mets beat writer, citizen journalists are my first stop for Mets news. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Those are parts of the Times franchise where professional journalists have been superseded and must share authority, respectively. And saying Wikipedia and Digg can’t compare to a writer’s voice that “no algorithm can imitate” is pretty wide of the mark — people are the engine that drives Wikipedia and Digg.

I don’t mean to make too much of this: I agree with Keller in most respects. But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and only succeeds — regardless of the medium — in the hands of expert practitioners. Newsrooms are smaller, people read ruthlessly online, and plenty of terrific writing and even reporting is being created by people outside the traditional journalism ranks. In championing long-form narrative, we need to keep these things in mind.

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Speaking of long-form narrative, here’s something I wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing about the untimely death of my neighbor’s brother, and what I discovered sorting through his baseball-card collection. Hope you like it.

A Ridiculous Foursquare Mission and Its Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, I don’t even drink coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

Side Businesses, Communities and Missions

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on March 4, 2010

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a must-read on side-bet businesses that could help news organizations through their current woes.

For those who think this is something new, Mitchell passes along Michael Schudson’s observation that American newspapers got their start as advertisements for printers who made their money printing other things — as well as by offering postal services and serving as general stores. And he notes that today, the Washington Post gets the majority of its revenue from Kaplan, its education business.

Of course, few news organization are likely bets for launching test-prep behemoth, but smaller papers have done well with smaller ventures: The Pocono Record’s editor tells Mitchell that the paper does a nice side business selling reprints of photos taken at sporting events and festivals by the paper’s photographers. (Because the photo galleries are posted online, they also give the Record a nice traffic bump.) An Alaska TV station runs airplane flights and fishing trips. And lots of specialty news organizations offer special reports or host meetings.

Mitchell offers three considerations for news organizations considering such side-bet ventures. At the top of his list: “consistency with the organization’s values.”

Agreed — to which I’d add a wrinkle. To me, the core values of every news organization should include serving as a key member of a community and as a collection point/repository for information about that community. (Though not necessarily the sole such repository or the core of that community.) I think news organizations have accelerated their decline by losing sight of this mission, through cutbacks that have damaged their institutional memory and fetishizing empty traffic numbers that accompanied oft-meaningless “reach.” Some side-bet businesses of the sort discussed by Mitchell would simultaneously bring in more money and reinvigorate news organizations’ role in their communities.

The Pocono Record’s photo galleries bring in money, but I’d argue they’re also a community resource, a digital expansion of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local businesses, particularly if they’re constructed to make the news organization a valuable middleman.

My folks have a summer house in Maine, and one of their local papers there is the Lincoln County News. Like the Record, the News posts photo galleries from local events and sells reprints. It also has Web forms for submitting events, birth announcements and news of engagements and weddings. For those who think small local papers are just shovelware, there are a lot of great, community-friendly features here. What else could the News do? A next step might be to tie together wedding announcements with local caterers, wedding planners, and the like, link birth announcements with florists, and so on. Tie the food/dining section in with reader reviews and location-based services. Instead of just linking to restaurants’ Web sites, offer to build or improve restaurant Web sites — or any potential advertiser, for that matter. Then the paper gets a cut of referrals. (You’d have to be careful, of course: Restaurant reviews, for example, couldn’t be dictated by business relationships. But bright lines have always had to be drawn, and small towns have always been webs of personal and business connections.)

For a local news organization that built itself out in this way, the business of news might seem secondary on the balance sheet: The organization would be a Web consultancy, photo service, community bulletin board and partner with many local businesses that also had some journalists on staff, raising the question of which business is the side bet. But from one point of view — a critical one for paying the bills — news has always been secondary, the stuff around the ads meant to connect businesses with local customers. All of these connections would support the news organization’s mission of participating in and supporting a community — just as those long-ago print shops provided valuable services to local businesses and individuals, sold useful items, served as a gathering place and even printed some news.

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That Pew Report — and Other Monday Reads

Posted in Going Local, Social Media, Social Search, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 1, 2010

There’s a new report out from Pew’s Excellence in Journalism project, and it’s a pretty fascinating snapshot of American news consumers and their habits. Nieman Labs has a good overview here, as does Pew itself.

Quick reaction: I found the report an interesting confirmation of how quickly news consumption is changing. Consider the following:

  • 92% of respondents use multiple platforms to get their news
  • 56% say they follow news all or most of the day
  • 37% say they’ve helped create news, commented on it or shared it

That’s a sea change — the old print-only, brand-loyal news consumer transformed into one who’s often looking for news, getting it from multiple sources and on multiple platforms, and then doing something with it if they aren’t creating it themselves.

A couple of points made me yearn for further exploration:

  • Some examining the study’s conclusions have noted that just 2% of respondents rely on the Internet exclusively for news, but I think that’s less surprising than it is on first glance — few people are that absolutist in their consumption habits. I still get news from print sources and television, so I’d fall into the 98% category, but my print and TV consumption of news is a rounding error compared to what it was even five years ago.
  • I was interested that 57% of respondents said they relied on just two to five Web sites for their news, suggesting that while news consumers graze, they may not graze very far afield. But if I were a publisher, I’d want more information before I drew a conclusion from that. For instance, I’d want to know if that answer takes into account material people read through email sharing and social networking, which could bring many more sources into the mix.
  • When asked what they wanted more coverage of, respondents’ top choice was “science and discoveries,” at 44%. Bringing up the rear was local, at 38%. But when you look at the methodology, those numbers are essentially the same.

Finally, the report clearly shows some opportunities for publishers.

  • The most popular online news subject is the weather (81%). As a callow journalist, I complained loudly about having to do weather stories. As a manager at an online news site, I never thought twice about our weather offerings. As a reader, I concur with the poll: Checking the weather is what I do the most. Moreover, I’d love to have more information about what the weather is doing, beyond forecasts. Case in point: My home just got socked by the weekend’s snowicane, and I found it very difficult to get an in-depth explanation of what this weird storm was and why it was doing what it did. The best explanation I found came from the Baltimore Sun, which has a wonderful weather blog by reporter Frank Roylance. Given what Pew has found and what our own experiences will tell us, why are weather blogs so rare?
  • Pew found that 23% of social-networking users follow news organizations or individual journalists within social-networking sites. That isn’t taking into account social-networking users who interact with the news through a degree of separation by reading what friends and peers pass along, which is a much higher percentage. These people are specifically making news organizations or individual journalists part of their social-networking habits. Next time a publisher wonders about the value of social networking, there’s a stat for them.
  • 70% of Pew’s respondents agreed that the amount of news and information out there available from different sources is overwhelming. There’s the case for curation and being a trustworthy gateway right there.

A couple of quick notes about other things:

My latest EidosMedia Web chat with my friend David Baker is available here. This time around, David and I are chatting about mobile strategy for news organizations. By the way, my thanks to David and Massimiliano Iannotta for their help with RTN’s recent redesign. (That cool image header is David’s doing as well.)

Over at the National Sports Journalism Center, I write about my spring-training news habits, and how I take in news from a huge number of sources that didn’t exist a few years ago. In discussing digital journalism, it’s easy to forget that while these are anxious times for publishers, consumers have never had it better in terms of how much information is available and how many choices they have.

Conversation Is Free-Range — Quit Building Corrals

Posted in Communities, Going Local, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on February 3, 2010

By now news organizations know they have to be aggressive about social media — it’s a vehicle for distributing their content, commenting, criticizing and otherwise discussing it, and reusing it in various ways. And social media is a chance to rebuild ties with an audience that’s now so busy talking back and creating content of its own that the word hardly seems to fit.

But as is often the case with big opportunities, the question of how to dive in can be paralyzing. And I think that paralysis causes too many news organizations to choose the wrong social-media starting point. Social media is seen as another channel for disseminating news. It’s viewed as a mutation of discussions or article comments. It’s eyed as a new promotional vehicle. And none of those approaches is wrong, for social media can be any or all of those things. But thinking about social media in such narrow ways misses the bigger picture, and starting one’s social-media efforts from such points of view helps ensure that discussions will continue to be about trees, and not the forest.

Social media can seem new and complicated, but at its heart it’s old and simple. Before too long, it will be so woven into our daily lives that it will be invisible and the term will be generally meaningless. Which is as it should be: The underlying technologies and individual platforms aren’t nearly as important as what we do with them. And what is that? Interesting new things, to be sure, but mostly what we’ve always done: We talk. We ask questions and give advice and gossip and trade interesting stories and argue and try to sell each other stuff and be inspiring and be petty and self-promote and help each other and fall in love and pick fights and discover new ideas and seek refuge in old ones. And by doing all that, we create new bonds between people and reinforce existing ones. Whether we’re talking about fan pages or Twitter, it comes down to talking and listening.

Conversation doesn’t just happen in specific places, but everywhere. Yet in approaching social media, news organizations tend to see their role as starting conversations, or providing settings for them. On the surface, this seems logical: News organizations already host discussions. Playing host to conversations reinforces news organizations’ sense of self-worth, and seems to promise greater control over them. And starting conversations feels like a fit for news organizations’ desire to serve their communities.

All of these are logical or laudable impulses. But that playbook stopped working a generation ago, as newspapers ceded their place as community centers and connectors. The conversation doesn’t need to be restarted, for it never stopped — it just needs to be joined. The community doesn’t need to be built — it’s already there. Instead of thinking of themselves as the potential seeds or centers of communities, news organizations need to see themselves as parts of larger communities that already exist, and find roles within them.

How can we do this? For starters, consider Twitter lists. It’s great to have a Twitter list of staffers, but it’s much more powerful to have a Twitter list of leaders in various communities of interest, and then integrate those lists within your site as low-maintenance, real-time news feeds. For examples, check out the Texas Tribune’s Tweetwire, or the ideas in this Mashable post. Now, think how many such communities your average metro paper could dip into and display. Every local sports franchise can have a feed that includes the news organization’s own sportswriters, other news organizations’ writers, smart bloggers, players and club officials. By putting together a feed that includes music writers and members of local bands who tweet, you’ve created a nightlife guide and an interesting collective musicians’ diary. Politicians and civic leaders should have their own feed, of course — joined by City Hall reporters and spiced up by the tweets of community gadflies. And so on.

Such feeds are fundamentally out of control? That’s OK — so’s conversation itself. Readers are increasingly sophisticated consumers of content — they’ll understand. (And you can always remove any truly bad actors from your feeds.) These feeds could direct readers to your rivals? So what — you’ll get more credit as a gatekeeper than you will by pretending your rivals don’t exist.

Such efforts are just the beginning, and only one way of joining conversations and communities. They’re early experiments — but experiments that begin with the right starting point, and so will lead to much more. Conversations and the communities engaged in them are free-range — we need to resist the impulse to create corrals.

Digging Into the Abernathy/Foster Report

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on November 13, 2009

The latest attempt to summarize the challenges facing newspapers and recommend a course of action is out, with the alarm bells being sounded this time by veteran media executive Penelope Muse Abernathy and former McKinsey director Richard Foster.

The study (linked from Bill Mitchell’s overview as a PDF) struck me as a fairly familiar overview, though the writer/editor in me appreciated that it’s admirably succinct, and written with a welcome bite. (And I laughed out loud at the examination of Hindu and Judeo-Christian demises.) Certainly Abernathy and Foster find the right targets and hit them hard.

For instance, they nail the industry’s major disadvantages in the digital era:

  • the high cost of printing and distribution
  • the loss of geographically protected market dominance
  • the loss of high-margin advertising to online competitors

And their proposed plan of action seems sound as well:

  • shed legacy costs as quickly as possible
  • recreate community online in an effort to regain pricing leverage
  • build new online ad revenue streams

For me the best section of the plan is the one concerned with community, particularly how it’s defined and how it should be approached. A theme of the report is that news organizations keep using new digital tools in an effort to repurpose old models, when they ought to be reinventing things from the ground up. For instance, Abernathy and Foster note that pre-digital newspapers aggregated content and defined community largely based on geographical and political boundaries, but the new aggregators — search engines and commerce sites — do so around special interests. That simple, essential shift may be obvious to Web-business types, but I think it’s a blind spot for newspaper veterans.

Their advice: Rebuild newspapers around specialized audiences and communities (including hyperlocal), instead of continuing to try and reach a single mass audience or community. Start with niche audiences that papers are already serving. Become their aggregators, and customize stories for them — for example, instead of writing one big story about the health-care debate, write different versions tailored for those different specialty audiences. Such reinvented papers, they say, might be able to charge advertisers a premium to reach those communities, and charge customers for unique information.

An interesting point I hadn’t encountered before is that Abernathy and Foster say there’s a precedent for this — magazines responded to the threat posed by television by migrating to serve specialized niches or interest groups and charging advertisers a premium to reach them. Newspapers, on the other hand, have largely reached for eyeballs, putting themselves in competition with better aggregators such as Google.

There are some rather searing quotes in the report. Here’s one: “Unless news organizations simultaneously invest in re-imagining and re-inventing the online edition, there is no transformation of the traditional newspaper and the industry dies with its aging loyal readers, who pay an ever-increasing price to receive the ‘last’ printed copy of the newspaper.”

Ouch. And the report is nicely short on Pollyanna-ism, as this warning makes plain: “[a]n enterprising executive may accomplish all three goals … and not achieve the operating margins typical of news companies in the last quarter of the 20th century, since those profit levels were largely the result of being de facto geographic monopolies.”

Abernathy and Foster are sympathetic to companies that know they need to change, but find those changes difficult to implement. As an example of how to escape that trap, they cite Intel, and its change from making DRAMs to microprocessors. That difficult transition was finally made, they write, when Gordon Moore and Andy Grove asked themselves a brutally simple question: “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”

It’s a good question. Here’s hoping it gets newspaper executives nodding, and causes them to take action.

Long-Form Journalism, and Other Friday Reads

Posted in Cultural Change, Going Local, Long-Form Journalism, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on October 30, 2009

Yesterday the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach explored narrative in the digital age, beginning with the great Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith and wending his way through the distractions of Facebook, Twitter and the rapidly changing newspaper business.

It’s a rather tortured, ambivalent read. (That’s not meant as a criticism — discomfort and ambivalence are part of figuring stuff out.) On the one hand, Achenbach has faith in the power of narrative to survive amid distractions and fads, writing that it’s not “merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this. They know that the story is the original killer app.” On the other, he frets that “narrative these days competes against incrementalized information — data, chatter, noise” and worries about newspapers’ embrace of charticles, content creation and aggregation — as well as readers’ love of blogs and Facebook. (“It’s hard to sustain a story on a page designed to put you in contact with your 1,374 close personal friends.”)

There are some overgeneralizations here — I could have done without Achenbach’s dismissal that “to a remarkable degree, bloggers aren’t storytellers.” (Read most anything by Joe Posnanski. Or, if I may be horribly self-promotional, one of my own attempts at blog storytelling.) And after firing somewhat random shots at Facebook and aggregators, he notes that the Internet can send good stories winging from user to user — which is one of the things I love most about social media and aggregation done right.

I think Achenbach nails it when he notes that “the Internet can be, for the very best stories, an accelerant, not a retardant, of great narrative. But mediocre stories need not apply.” That’s right — but it skips over the fact that long, mediocre stories never worked in print — or in any other medium. (Picture a bunch of ancient Greeks walking out of a tavern in the middle of a dull tale, leaving behind a blind storyteller you’ve never heard of.) If the Web has put more pressure on long-form narratives to pull their considerable weight and engage readers, that’s not a bad thing.

Yes, there’s a lot of noise in the digital world. But good storytelling is signal. Done skillfully, long-form narrative works online — just as it does anywhere else. Gary Smith works. And so does Joel Achenbach, ambivalence and all.

Ah, but there’s a rather important question worrying Achenbach that I’ve left out: Who’s going to pay for those long stories?

I don’t know that — nobody does. But I do stubbornly maintain that long-form journalism will be a big part of whatever answer emerges.

One of the engines of hopefully creative destruction for the newspaper industry is that the Web has destroyed papers’ old geographical protections, throwing them all into a common pool. That pool is full of commodity journalism, which is useless for enhancing a newspaper’s brand and impossible to charge for. On top of that, the lifespan of a scoop has dwindled from days to minutes. Too many newspapers have been revealed as a veneer of local news over a lot of me-too stories you can read done better elsewhere — and endless rounds of cost-cutting have just made papers thinner and poorer.

But slowly but surely, papers are waking up to the idea that they have to stop doing what everybody else is doing and find ways to be unique. (This is one factor driving the renewed interest in local news — the old geographical protections still apply.) And this is why I maintain long-form journalism — whether it’s investigative journalism or just superb storytelling — will not only survive but emerge as more important than it is today. Unlike a lot of other news stories, long-form journalism can’t be copied quickly or easily. That will make it valuable.

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From the MinnPost’s Joel Kramer, here’s more evidence of the trend for publishers to value the loyal few over the empty many. (See also Slate’s David Plotz on core readers vs. drive-bys, and my own conversation about traffic stats with Greg Harmon.)

After I tweeted about this, a friend of mine raised an objection: How you can sell the “loyal few” to advertisers, given agencies’ struggles with understanding digital as it is? My answer was that different advertisers want different things. Publishers are only now realizing that big traffic numbers piled up by non-local drive-by readers are useless to local advertisers — they need real numbers about local loyalists who might actually buy something. There are global/national advertisers for whom pure reach is important, but they’re not the only game in town — and probably not the most valuable one.

On Reconstructing Journalism (and Other Things)

Posted in Cultural Change, Going Local, Paid Content, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on October 19, 2009

Like most folks concerned with the future of newspapers, I spent a good chunk of the morning reading “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” the Columbia School of Journalism report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson. (It’s available here as a PDF.)

I’ve read the report, and I’m afraid I don’t have an immediate reaction that makes for a great blaring headline or a thundering blog post.

First off, I felt it was a terrific, dispassionate overview of how we came to this pass, and the many enterprises and undertakings that are experimenting with public-affairs journalism amid newspapers’ decay. And for much of the first half of the report I found myself filled with hope — hope to see the dots connected between the Voice of San Diego and Spot.Us and ProPublica and the HuffPo Investigative Fund and the Texas Tribune and MinnPost and NPR. I’d read about all those intriguing experiments, but piecemeal, and taking them in all at once made me think that surely some of these organizations will succeed, with their stories pointing the way for others. I also thought the report was evenhanded about blogs and the so-called MSM — it was refreshingly free of mother’s basement cliches and blogger revolution talk from the Too Much Red Bull crowd.

Which brings us to their conclusions. Here’s the clarion call:

The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone. American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment — as society has, at much greater expense, for public needs like education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation — through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.

It’s tempting to look at all the worthy experiments spotlighted by Downie and Schudson and conclude that at least some of them will work, and therefore it’s better to let the market sort things out, without getting the government involved or trying to replace press-baron journalism with an uncertain era of philanthropist-baron journalism. But what worries me is the potential “dip” involved, and the efficacy of the current model’s replacement as a watchdog on government and the powerful.

If we think that the next three to five years will see various non-profits and collectives and Web-only papers assume their place next to shrunken but still robust digital-first newspapers, and if we think that combination of news organizations will be able to pursue effective public-affairs journalism, then by all means let the market work. But what if it will take much longer than that? And what if the actors in this new media ecosystem prove too small to be “stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics and legal services, and present their work to a large public,” to quote from the report’s endorsement of newsrooms? If either or both of those fears are realized, what happens to public-affairs journalism and civic life for 10 years, or a generation, or longer?

This isn’t to doubt the promise of various post-print approaches; rather, it’s to worry about their effective reach. And if we’re sufficiently worried about the answers to those questions, I don’t see dismissing out of hand the proposals from Downie and Schudson for redistributing existing taxes or raising new ones in support of public-affairs journalism. Has government support of science or the arts tainted those endeavors? (Maybe it has. I admit this is new to me.)

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course — there’s a lot more to think about here. But however muddy it may be, that’s my initial reaction.

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Mathew Ingram offers a defense of serendipity in newspapers, finding value in being able to skim the newspaper and read about Muslim hockey players, Paul Shaffer, the band Gossip, city-council politics and retirees’ pension troubles, to name stories that caught his eye in a recent Globe and Mail. His column is a belated but heartfelt rejoinder to Clay Shirky’s assertion that the idea that someone doing a crossword puzzle may also want news about a Honduran coup or the Lakers is and always has been nonsense.

The debate reminded me of one of my favorite Real Time columns for the Online Journal — my attempt to demolish the myth that serendipity is one of print newspapers’ hallmarks, and missing online. As I argued then, print serendipity is limited by the layout of the paper and the reader’s own habits — if you toss aside the business section (or sports) in the morning, you’ve already limited the number of happy discoveries. And if you miss that great unexpected story today, you’re not going to find it in tomorrow’s paper.

The Web, however, is a marvelous serendipity engine — and newspapers harnessed it a long time ago with Most Popular. Most Popular is a Goldilocks path through the paper — stories chosen by a cohort of relatively similar readers, but not limited to a given section or day. (This is why I dislike “Most Read in This Section” or “People Who Read This Story Also Read” — they’re too fine-grained for serendipity.)

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My most-recent column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the very different (and very effective) habits of two Twitterers — the Daily News’s Ralph Vacchiano and Golf Digest’s Dan Jenkins. It’s a column about sportswriting, but hopefully there are some potentially useful thoughts for journalists of all stripes.

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Video: Four Perspectives on Journalism

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on October 1, 2009

Back in June I got together with three other journalism veterans — John Berman of ABC News, Susan Chira of the New York Times, and Alexander Heffner of Scoop44 — to discuss journalism and where it might be headed.  I’m surprised at how optimistic I was about the subscription model back then; I’ve definitely grown more pessimistic as time has gone by.

Video is below — for those who don’t have an hour, there’s also an edited transcript starting on page 24 here. (Opens a PDF.)

Journalism Roundtable on Vimeo.

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