Reinventing the Newsroom

How Breaking News Is Changing

Posted in Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on April 16, 2013

I’ve been doing some work with my old friends and colleagues at Poynter, and wound up pitching in with their coverage of yesterday’s terrible events in Boston. Which got me thinking about breaking news and how it’s changing with readers seeing each step of the newsgathering process. My take is here.

For anyone who stumbles across this, this blog is now updated fairly rarely. You can keep up with my adventures writing, editing and (occasionally) consulting over at my Tumblr, Jason Fry’s Dorkery. Or follow me on Twitter.

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Finding Journalism’s New Sweet Spot

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on February 11, 2011

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center begs sportswriters to slow down and do less — and it seems to have hit a nerve. (As always with my sportswriting columns, the lessons apply equally to any other journalist.)

The genesis of this column came back in the fall, when Nieman Reports published a look at beat writing in the digital age, including my own somewhat emo musings on being caught between indie blogging and fandom on the one hand and professional journalism and neutrality on the other. Elsewhere in the report, I read my NSJC colleague Dave Kindred’s exploration of how sportswriters’ beats had changed because of the web and Twitter. Kindred opened with Wally Matthews, now of ESPN New York, explaining how the beat writers would race to be first to tweet the lineup once a team posted it on the dugout wall. A Denver Post Broncos beat writer, Lindsay Jones, was able to top that bit of ridiculousness: Reporters can’t use cellphones from the Broncos’ practice facility, so they have to run out of the stadium to be first to tweet something. (By the way, fans watching practice can tweet their thumbs off. Is there an organization more in love with stupid rules than the NFL?)

Some things send you rushing to the keyboard, inspired or indignant; others have to simmer. The two Nieman pieces nagged at me all fall and winter, until I finally was able to articulate what bothered me. Those beat writers weren’t technology rejectionists: They’d embraced new tools, and were working their butts off. Yet their lives were worse — web publishing, blogs and Twitter had only added to the burdens of an already tough job. Why? Because they were using those new tools to do things the old way. Someone had sold them a bill of goods.

I don’t follow one Mets beat writer or another on Twitter — I follow all of them. They’re part of a collective flow of news, one I dip into to get news when I need it. Do I want to know tonight’s lineup? Of course. Do I care who had it first? No. Do I notice who had it first? No. With Twitter the question’s faintly ridiculous, in fact. Twitter embodies The And World, in which I get news from as many sources as I can take in and the flow is the important thing, not the component streams. I’d like to think I chose a crummy metaphor on purpose — there really aren’t individual elements of a flow, are there?

Those beat writers were using Twitter as if this were still The Or World, in which I’m going to buy Paper A or Paper B based on who has a scoop on the front page. Today I consume Papers A, B, C, D and so on. And as for scoops, 99% of them have shelf lives so short that for all intents and purposes they no longer exist.

Too much of what Kindred found those beat writers doing is a waste of time. So why are they doing it? I suspect it’s a combination of things. There’s a culture of competitiveness and adrenaline, which isn’t a bad thing so much as it’s a good impulse wastefully channeled. Habit and tradition are part of it too, I’m sure. I suspect it’s also fear, on multiple levels — higher-ups shoved writers down new media pathways, writers were too intimidated by desperate times in the news business who question whether that was the best use of their time, and working harder is always easier to demonstrate than working smarter.

What should those beat writers do instead of competing for mayfly-lived scoops? My advice came down to “Worry a lot less about being first with the news and worry a lot more about being first with what the news means.” Then my column elicited a sharp, smart follow-up from Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk — and one of Calcaterra’s commenters absolutely nailed it, far better than I did.

Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.”

And then I come here.

BANG. There it is — the elusive sweet spot. Be the place readers turn to find out what that bit of news means. Do that, and you’ll have an audience and a brand. And a future.

Where Does Brand Fragmentation End?

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

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

* * *

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.

Sound and Fury Between the Times and the Journal

Posted in Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 14, 2010

In today’s New York Observer, John Koblin offers an entertaining preview of the coming newspaper war between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which will unveil its New York edition on April 26. (Disclosure: I spent nearly 13 years as a writer, columnist, editor, cat herder etc. at the Online Journal before they laid me off in the summer of 2008.)

On one level, this will be a lot of fun.

Robert Thomson, the Journal’s editor, is apparently incapable of speaking without saying something barbed and provocative. Witness his infamous description of content aggregators as tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet, or the advice for Times readers that he passes along via Koblin: “cancel your subscription, read it on the Web for free and buy the Journal.” Thomson is a smart guy and a character, and journalism could use more of both. As for his boss, Rupert Murdoch needs no introduction.

The Times has stayed mostly above the fray, which is what you’d expect from an institution that still generally sticks to the Gray Lady script in its public statements. But there’s an undercurrent of nastiness on its part, too — particularly given how many former Journal people now work for the Times. Koblin notes that the Journal remains furious at the Times’s poaching of arts reporter Kate Taylor, who apparently was very familiar with the New York edition plans. And there’s the fact that Times spokesman Bob Christie was until very recently a Journal spokesman, which lends statements like this added zing: “The readers and employees of The Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.” That’s not quite getting to tell the boss exactly what you think of him, but it’s pretty close.

So anyway, pass the popcorn!

But on another level it all seems quaint, like a Broadway revival. Thomson in particular talks mostly as if this were a print drama, discussing pages and jumps and saying Times readers are frustrated by the act of reading. His statements about the online side of this fight are startling.

Asked what Journal offerings will be free to readers online, Thomson told Koblin “nothing,” then amended that to “virtually nothing.” If so, that seems like an awfully big missed opportunity to peel off the Times’ online readers. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out it isn’t so — Thomson is good at strategic misdirection. (Besides, Murdoch himself hasn’t always seemed clear on how his paper’s paywall works.) Moreover, such a strategy would ignore the success the Journal has had with a much more nuanced approach to paywalls. The Journal has long understood that you can do well giving away individual articles to spark awareness through search and social media but still charging for the product as a whole.

Then there’s Thomson’s belief that there are no second reads any more — you’ll buy one paper only. That’s Koblin’s paraphrase, but assuming it captures what Thomson said, I’m dumbstruck.

You could counter that on the Web there are second and third and fourth and nth reads, but the entire concept is faintly ridiculous online. Readers consume information in fragments from a vast array of news sources — some encountered because they’re part of daily habits, but many more discovered through search and social recommendations. For the online audience, there aren’t reads at all anymore — at least not in the way Thomson seems to be thinking of them.

Koblin describes the imminent dustup in New York as “an old-fashioned, honest-to-God press war,” and judging from Thomson’s comments, I’d put the emphasis on “old-fashioned.” Today’s press wars are fought at a far more atomized level than this, decided not by surveys of subway cars but by millions of clicks on Twitter and Facebook and Google. Finding a principal in this drama discussing second reads is a little like stumbling upon a Juarez narco-smuggler wearing a fedora and brandishing a tommy gun.

But what the hell, I’m sure they’ll sell a lot of tickets for the revival.

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Why Paywalls Are Fighting the Last War

Posted in Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 15, 2010

Reading through sections of the new Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media report, I had an unhappy thought about paywalls: Even if you believe, as I do, that consumers will pay for news online in certain circumstances, the news industry is fighting the last war in its current approach to the problem.

First, the grim news — and it’s almost unrelentingly grim. Many of the numbers in the report ought to come with a warning about reading them while drinking hot coffee, holding a sharp object or taking certain medications. Consider the following:

  • Newspapers saw a 26% drop in ad revenue in 2009, and a three-year drop of 43%.
  • Daily circulation has fallen 25.6% since 2000.
  • Since 2000 the industry has shed $1.6 billion in annual reporting/editing capacity, or 30% of the industry. Meanwhile, over the last four years, $141 million in non-profit money has flowed to new-media efforts.

The metrics about online news consumption aren’t any cuddlier:

  • 90% of newspaper-industry funds come from print sources.
  • Only 35% of Americans surveyed say they have a favorite news sites online — and only 19% of those people (7% overall) say they’d keep visiting that site if a paywall went up.
  • Only 21% of respondents say they rely primarily on one destination for news online.

As I’ve said before with Pew, while admiring the report greatly I wonder how much the methodology is playing a role here. For instance, the question about favorite news sites may undermine the impact of news found through search and particularly through social search. But the first of the report’s “major trends” certainly feels right to me: “As we learn more about both web economics and consumer behavior, the unbundling of news seems increasingly central to journalism’s future. … Online, it is becoming increasingly clear, consumers are not seeking out news organizations for their full news agenda. They are hunting the news by topic and by event and grazing across multiple outlets.”

When I was a kid, there was one daily newspaper in my house (the New York Times) and one national newscast (the CBS Evening News). My parents were loyal to them, and I inherited that loyalty from there. But that world is long gone. My wife still reads the New York Times in print on Saturday and Sunday, childcare willing, but I rarely pick up the physical paper. I read a lot of Times material online (and I’d pay for it), but I also read material from a blizzard of other sources, many of which didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. When I’m searching for specific information, I pick and choose what to read not based on loyalty, but on my own experiences with news organizations, prejudices about them and my on-the-fly judgments about what I’m reading. When I’m curious and receptive to new things to read, the greatest influence is what my friends and peers are reading. As for TV, I can’t remember the last time I watched a discrete newscast.

This isn’t just the old print/Web sea change. The very concept of a destination Web site is increasingly out of date — in hindsight, the idea of destination Web sites feels like the old print and TV model crammed into a Web box. The rise of effective search mortally wounded that model, and the arrival of social search is providing the coup de grace.

Yet paywalls and meters are all based around that model. They’re weapons (or defenses, if you prefer) for fighting the last war. Pew’s findings will be widely seen as blowing a hole in paywall hopes, but I think their real import is a bit different: They reveal that the core assumption of paywalls is flawed, because destination sites are a thing of the past.

In the age of unbundling the essential unit of news is not the site or the section but the article. (This isn’t necessarily the way things should be — witness the SXSW discussion of context, and efforts to “lift” the essential unit to become the topic.) Publishers have to think about their sites as they are mostly likely to be encountered: as single articles discovered through search or social search or sharing. That’s your front door, not the section front or the home page.

But that same thinking must extend to how to pay for the news.

I remain stubbornly insistent that paywalls aren’t doomed because of consumer attitudes about paying for news. I think those attitudes are more subject to change than you might think. Yes, I read Pew’s findings. Yes, I know we still have a glut of largely commoditized news. I think the news industry, sadly, is going to have to get a lot smaller to balance out the imbalance of supply and demand — and get a lot better at providing more relevant, valuable and engaging news while it gets smaller. That transformation has been brutal and is going to get worse.

But despite believing people will pay for news, I agree with the skeptics that paywalls are doomed in their current form — because they’re built around a destination-site concept that fewer and fewer readers care about. Rather than paywalls, we need paytags — some way for payment information to travel with a given piece of content as it’s discovered through search and sharing and, sure, the occasional stroll through a destination site. Publishers need a way to substantially decrease or eliminate wallet friction, memorably discussed by Dave McClure. They need to reject the platform model in favor of the app model that lets their content thrive elsewhere, as Maya Baratz has written. They need to find their way across the dreaded penny gap.

Paywalls won’t do that. Subscriptions won’t do that. The only thing that might work is a metered plan — and one that works across a huge number of publishers.

That’s an enormous challenge legally, culturally and technologically. I know that. But it’s an impossible one if publishers continue to fight the last war.

Sports, Linking and the New Competitive Advantage

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on March 9, 2010

In my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center, I look at the diminishing value of scoops in the era of links and retweets. Sports fans now get information not just from destination sites, but from emails, Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. Meanwhile, at least on Twitter, sportswriters now routinely acknowledge news broken by their rivals. (And increasingly by athletes, agents and leagues that don’t need middlemen in the first place.)

The result is that scoops — at least of the routine, I-learned-this-a-little-before-you-did variety — have almost no value anymore. Linking and Twitter acknowledgments have blurred the once-inviolate boundaries between news organizations, and those boundaries have been erased by fans’ use of social media to gather and consume information from many different news organizations at once. The life expectancy of “routine scoops” has dwindled from a day in the paper era to minutes in the Web era to seconds in the Twitter era. Given this mayfly life, few sports fans notice where routine scoops come from anymore, and fewer sports fans care.

This, I argue over at NSJC, is ultimately good for sportswriters, because it makes being smart and fast more valuable than just being fast and makes writing me-too stories pointless. Reader and brand loyalty is now won by being first to offer analysis, predictions, and historical context, as well as by creating “true scoops” that aren’t easy to match. What links that seemingly different material is that it’s hard to copy, and its value is difficult to capture through links and retweets. This restores some of the competitive advantage of being first, which is good for the publisher. For the writer, doesn’t working on this stuff sound a lot more fun than turning out commodity stories more and more fans have already read?

Which brings me to Zachary Kouwe and the New York Times. What went wrong and led to Kouwe’s departure from the Times for plagiarism has been dissected from several points of view. There have been questions about the punishing pace of being a young reporter who has to turn out tweets and blog posts and Web stories and print stories. And the Times (and by extension the rest of the mainstream press) has been lambasted for not embracing the culture of the link that underpins the Web. (For three good takes on what happened, see Felix Salmon at Reuters, Paul Smalera on True/Slant and Mathew Ingram at GigaOM.)

Both Ingram and Smalera wonder why Kouwe spent so much time re-reporting when he could have just linked, and wonder if competitive concerns were at the heart of that decision. Ingram observes that links are bridges that “can also take readers elsewhere, and if your business depends (or you think it depends) on keeping those readers on your island, you might think twice about building that bridge.” And Smalera writes that “editors of certain stripe do get annoyed/upset when you attribute reporting to a competitor, especially if they’re of the opinion that you could report the same details yourself if you’d quit being so lazy and pick up the damn phone. … I would bet, with no inside knowledge, that the fiercely competitive Times, especially its Business section, especially DealBook, is loath to credit competitors, because it looks weak. So editors push for original-sounding reporting, and Kouwe massaged wire copy and blog posts to meet deadlines and word counts.”

I don’t have any inside knowledge either, but I’d bet Ingram and Smalera have found the crux of the problem — which I see less as a deliberate rejection of Web values than as an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.

Let’s go back to sports. What Kouwe was doing was re-reporting “routine scoops.” This is a waste of time on the Web anyway — as Felix Salmon notes, “there are surely higher and better uses of your valuable time than going back to rewrite a story which already exists elsewhere.”

I agree absolutely — particularly when fewer and fewer readers care. The prescription for business news is the same as it is for sports: Link to and retweet the news your competitor broke, then beat your competitor to the punch of explaining what it means and why it matters. That’s where the competitive advantage lies now.

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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.

Does Long-Form Journalism Work Online?

Posted in Long-Form Journalism, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on August 25, 2009

No, says Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, telling Beet.tv in this short video interview that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.”

Yes, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, telling Times readers that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”

The two very different answers were noted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. So which is it?

I’m sure both men are correct. But then they’re serving very different audiences.

Tyrangiel says Time.com’s goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time,” and his portrait of a Web reader is someone at work between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., looking for the news with lunch on the desk, the boss at the door and the voice-mail light blinking on the phone.

Tyrangiel is obviously zeroed in on serving that reader, as he should be, which makes his statements sound a touch absolutist. For that kind of  reader, of course longer-form stories like the ones in the print version of Time aren’t going to do well. But this isn’t the only kind of reader, and the same reader may act differently in the middle of the workday than he or she does at other times. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and unlike Time.com, the Times magazine isn’t radically different online than it is in print. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to know what they’re getting, and to want and even expect stories they can engage with over a longer period of time.

So — as is so often the case on the Web — the answer is that different parts of the audience want different things, and a publisher may well wind up having to serve everybody.

This is a pretty brief post so far; were I to heed Tyrangiel’s warning, I’d quit right here. But having a weakness for goat-chokers myself, I’ll add a couple of caveats.

First off, I suspect the real question about long-form journalism isn’t whether it works online or not, but to ask how often it works at all. This isn’t to dismiss the form, but to note simply (if a bit cynically) that many more people will read a lousy 4oo-word story than a lousy 4,000-word one.

The best long-form journalism kills in any medium — witness this Tommy Craggs takedown of Luddite baseball announcer Joe Morgan, this Michael Lewis look back at the financial meltdown, or this Nick Kristof and Sarah WuDunn cri de coeur about women’s rights, from last week’s Times magazine. (I read it online, by the way.) But the best long-form journalism is very hard to do, and correspondingly rare.

On the other hand, it’s also very valuable. Good long-form journalism offers online publications a crucial competitive advantage: It’s very hard or impossible to copy. In a world awash in commoditized news, this is a big selling point, which is one reason I have faith that long-form journalism will be more important to Web publishers a couple of years from now than it is today.

But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and it will always be risky. Tyrangiel is absolutely right to observe that “online, you can be anywhere, anytime” — let the reader’s attention wander and they’re off somewhere else, never to return. And the reader has to know what he or she is getting into.

Therein lies a cautionary tale. Years ago (as the story was told to me), a reporter was sitting in the airport and realized a man sitting nearby had started reading the reporter’s very ambitious, in-depth front-page story. The reporter leaned in unobserved, and watched in fascination as the man took in each paragraph on the front page. The reader was enthralled, he realized — he sat bolt upright and even began saying things like “wow” under his breath. Turn to the jump, the reporter thought. Don’t read the rest of the front page. Turn to the jump.

To the reporter’s delight, the man did just that — only to be confronted by the rest of the story, which took up a full double-truck. He looked paralyzed for a moment, exclaimed “Oh, shit!” — and closed the paper. Want to see the same effect online? Watch what happens when an unwary reader scrolls to the bottom of a first screen and sees 2 3 4 5 6 7 all hyperlinked.

Twitter, Ambient News and Experimentation

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments, Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on July 7, 2009

In February, the Los Angeles Times’s David Sarno interviewed Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey about the now-ubiquitous service and its origins. (It’s a two-parter, second part here.) Dorsey says that his initial idea for Twitter was inspired by vehicle dispatch. He noted that truck couriers and bike messengers roving around a city constantly offered updates on their position and what they were doing. Then he realized that another layer of such communications emerged from taxi cabs making their rounds, and yet another layer was created by emergency vehicles going about their business. Put together, such layers offered a rich sense of what was happening in a city at a given moment — except that regular people were missing. That’s where Twitter came in.

It didn’t begin as a grass-roots mechanism for reporting news, or as crowdsourced newsreader, though Twitter is good at those things. It’s good at lots of other things, too — as Dorsey tells Sarno, “the concept is so simple and so open-ended that people can make of it whatever they wish.”

For me, Twitter is most valuable as a newsreader, to the point that I now use it to track fast-moving stories as they unfold. What I find most interesting about the service is that’s not at all what I set out to do with it — the first time I realized Twitter had become a news feed was when I realized I was increasingly turning to it for news. It was an accident.

When I started using Twitter, I followed a number of people who share my professional interest in the future of journalism and how newsrooms can meet journalism’s challenges. To that, I added a layer of people who share my interest in the New York Mets, baseball, Brooklyn and Star Wars. And, of course, I followed my friends. I didn’t follow any general news feeds, because I didn’t see the need — I got such news elsewhere, and had no interest in getting it through Twitter.

But I got it anyway. (As discussed here.) It just happened — heck, if I’d consciously set out to make Twitter a newsreader, I would have constructed it a lot differently. (And it probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.)

I don’t get all my general news from Twitter — I didn’t read anything yesterday about Obama and Medvedev, or the riots in western China. What I do get are the big stories — Sarah Palin quitting, Michael Jackson dying, the Tehran protests. I get them because they transcend all the little categories in which I follow people. The Mets agonistes I follow don’t care about Wookiees and the Star Wars folks I follow don’t care about David Wright, but people in both those camps found Palin’s departure tweet-worthy. As it turns out, that’s a very handy way of filtering for big stories.

I’ve started to think of this as ambient news. It’s ambient in the sense that it flows through my Twitter feed alongside the personal and the professional items, as well as in the sense that it’s spread by people from all walks of life, in the digital-age version of “Didja hear?” (As such, it’s a subset of “ambient intimacy,” the term coined by Leisa Reichelt.)

So what roles and responsibilities should newspapers take on in a world of ambient news? They should worry less about breaking news (though of course it’s great if you really do have something exclusively) and worry more about verifying and curating. Acknowledge you’re hearing the same rumors and/or poring over the same reports as everybody else, say what you’re working on (within competitive limits) and let people know when you expect to have it. Knock down rumors that are untrue. Offer analysis and perspective if it can be done in 140-character bursts, or point people to particularly good examples of it, whether it’s your own work or somebody else’s. Be useful, discriminating and interesting — signal amid the news. That’s what good Twitterers do. (For the problem of creating an identity for an organization, see the Chicago Tribune’s ColonelTribune.)

But there’s a more general lesson here: Experiment all the time, with anything and everything that might further the mission of being useful to readers. “Vehicle dispatch for people” isn’t a concept that immediately makes you think “Hey, that’s a valuable way to strengthen our bond with our readers,” but that’s what happened with Twitter. A newspaper that’s not just willing but eager to experiment has the best chance of making the next unlikely leap.

Addendum: Fun story from the aforementioned Chicago Tribune about whether or not music fans still yell “Freebird!” at concerts. Lots of great details about the band and the song. This story is dear to my heart because I wrote about the tradition while I was at the Wall Street Journal. My WSJ take — kindly noted by Tribune reporter Christopher Borrelli — is here.

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