Reinventing the Newsroom

Solving the Problem of Drive-By Traffic

Posted in Branding, Communities, Creating Context, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on May 21, 2009

One of the basic challenges for today’s newspapers is this: The fundamental context around which their Web sites are built is broken.

In my last post, I offered a tongue-in-cheek tour of the pain of redesigning home pages. But that tour didn’t address a problem with which papers are still coming to terms: Many readers no longer come to them through the home page or the section pages, despite the amount of hand-wringing done by editors, designers, developers and business folks over such pages.

The very nature of the Web atomized newspapers, making the single article the basic unit of the newspaper. With the physical paper out of the picture, Web newspapers knew they had to create a new context for articles, and most soon grasped that making a paper work online demanded more than simply transforming print sections into navigation tabs.  The online audience was different, and needed a different context. (Compounding this challenge was the fact that papers also wanted to cater to print readers making their way online. At the Wall Street Journal Online, we had to figure out a name for the paper’s “Weekend” section that was recognizable to print readers but also informed online readers that the section wasn’t just updated on Friday and Saturday. Good luck with that one.)

Such debates are beginning to seem quaint. Today the article remains the basic unit of newspapers, but the problem of context has utterly changed. Readers do still come to articles through a paper’s internal Web navigation, but the much larger audience that’s being pursued finds individual articles through search, or through third-party news aggregators, or through links emailed by friends, shared on social-networking sites, or tweeted as shrunken, transformed URLs.

The atomization of the article is now complete, and it’s left newspapers grappling with the unhappy realization that greater traffic may not translate into greater revenue or reader loyalty. Too many page views from searching, aggregation and sharing are “drive-by traffic” — instead of exploring a paper’s other offerings, a reader consumes an article and is gone, perhaps never to return.

The logical goal, at least within the traditional newspaper framework, is to convert more of those drive-by readers to repeat visitors and then to members of a vibrant community of readers. But reaching that goal has to begin with an understanding of the different ways readers arrive at an article — and that’s lacking. Most papers still treat all readers as if they’d burrowed down to an article through the home page, but that’s true for fewer and fewer of them. The old context is broken, to the extent that it ever worked, and needs to be replaced.

But with what?

I’ve been thinking about that this week, and I think the answer is with as many different contexts are there are different-sized audiences.

When it comes to devices and services, newspapers are realizing that they have to go whereever readers want them to be — whether that means Facebook, Twitter or the iPhone. But the same logic has to applied to readers’ arrival — they have to be treated in as many different ways as there are decent-sized audiences that produce them.

A reader who arrived at an article because it scored high in search results might respond to articles, pages or other content related to those search terms. A reader who came via a Facebook link might respond to other articles his Facebook friends have (publicly) shared. A reader who arrived through a Most Popular list might be enticed by snippets of other articles on that list. What works in one case probably won’t work in another — and few if any readers are going to be engaged by the default navigation of a newspaper site they may have never visited.

And in every case, the newspaper should offer dramatic, in-your-face branding for drive-by readers. I’d love to see a paper survey such readers — because I bet in a depressingly large number of cases, the readers won’t even have registered what site they were just on.

I firmly believe that the long-term strategy for papers adapting to the age of digital news is to rebuild the reader communities online that they once anchored in print. But that strategy has to begin with treating readers properly whenever and however they arrive.

A Twitter Experiment

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments, Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 11, 2009

Last week’s Editor & Publisher/Mediaweek Interactive Media Conference was by turns interesting and depressing, which was about what I’d expect from an industry trying some fascinating experiments while enduring a financial battering. I was intrigued by stories like David Cohn’s Spot.us, interested in the possibilities of placebogging and printcasting, and listened avidly to Chris Krewson’s wise, entertaining review of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Web efforts. Yet every note of optimism was shadowed by loss, by talk of whether or not newspapers would survive, of how start-ups hoped to not get yanked down by the vortex of sinking ships, of doing a bit more with a lot less. As Mr. Krewson himself noted, his paper has filed for bankruptcy protection.

But one of the most interesting things I wound up thinking about wasn’t on the program — it was, for me, an accidental discovery.

I got on Twitter a couple of months ago, and like a lot of people I didn’t really get it at first — it seemed like Facebook stripped down to status updates and governed by subtly different social rules. I like the “ambient intimacy” of Facebook and how it’s changed my relationships with friends and acquaintances, but Twitter seemed duplicative. On the other hand, there was a sense of fun about it. That 140-character limit forced status updates to be disciplined, if sometimes haiku-like, and there was a welcome sense of what-the-heck experimentation, of kicking the tires. You could make of Twitter whatever you wanted, and that was enough to keep me playing with it.

The first thing I came to like about Twitter was that it didn’t require the same often-strained reciprocity as Facebook — I could keep up with journalism thinkers, technologists and people I found interesting but didn’t know very well without having to pester them to accept me as a “friend.”

The second thing I came to like snuck up on me. Little by little, I realized I was increasingly hearing news first not from my aggregated news on My Yahoo, but from tweets. This was more of a slowly dawning realization that my habits had changed than a thunderclap moment (like the first time you went to Google instead of AltaVista, or the first night you used TiVo), but it was still an interesting change. By following people who were information junkies, cared about things I cared about and offered opinions I valued, I’d accidentally created a pretty good crowdsourced news service for myself.

At the Interactive Media Conference, I saw someone had set up a hashtag — #IMConf — but the presence of Twitter didn’t really register until I found myself fretting over how I was going to blog effectively while attending all the sessions I wanted to see and meeting all the folks I wanted to meet. Oh yeah, Twitter. You could tweet too, you know.

At first it felt awkward. My years as a reporter left me perfectly confident about separating the news signal from the presentation noise and knowing what to tweet, but there was a learning curve about how to do it. Like any journalism veteran, I have a good mental map of various newspaper lengths and (longish) blog posts — I know if I’m halfway to saying what I want to say, or two-thirds of the way there, and understand without thinking about it how I’ll get to the finish line. But I had no such navigational ability when writing 132 characters at a time. (Gotta save room for the hashtag!) I found myself writing and rewriting as the conversation went on without me — and when I did tweet, I’d discover that other folks in the session had tweeted first and done a better job. (Trying to keep up with Placeblogger’s Tish Grier was particularly humbling.)

I also noticed, in reloading the IMConf hashtag, that there were a lot of duplicative tweets. That was fine for individual Twitterers and anyone following them, but made the hashtag noisy for those following the overall conversation. So I stopped tweeting newsy stuff and stepped back, offering bits of analysis and asking questions as they came to mind. That, I hoped, would be a better use of both my nascent Twitter skills and my journalism experience — and, hopefully, make the hashtag more diverse and potentially more interesting.

As the conference continued, you could see some other people had done the same thing — they’d found a place in the conversation that made sense for them and for the overall discussion. Nobody talked about it and no formal decision was made — it just happened automatically, and fairly quickly. The process had only just started — the conference was only two days, after all — but I imagine if we’d kept going roles would have become even better defined, with even better results for anyone following along.

It was interesting to watch that unfold, and to think about how it might shape news coverage. It reminded me of a chapter from Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control,” which you can read here — what we were doing was a somewhat differentiated version of flocking. The mathematics of flocking and the way individual decisions can collectively create order from chaos feel very strange, even deeply counterintuitive. But such collective efforts work surprisingly well, whether the test is an audience at a conference “deciding” to do a 360 in a virtual plane or a bunch of people chronicling something 140 characters at a time.

Next Stop Florida

Posted in Creating Context, Digital Experiments, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 21, 2009

New posts may be sparse this week — I’m heading down to Florida for a Poynter Institute sports summit, in which I’ll talk blogging for seasoned pros and newcomers, but mostly listen and learn. I was lucky enough to grow up around Poynter’s halls, and they always put on a good show that leaves you eager to try out new things. Having been tapped as the Blog Guy, I’ll be very interested in the reactions: The last Poynter sports summit I attended had a couple of veterans who were actively hostile and dismissive about blogs in the usual boring, uninformed Get Off My Lawn way, as well as some students whom I quickly learned had a lot to teach me about being entrepreneurial and making blogs work. I’ll also be curious to see if the sportswriters are ahead of the journalistic curve in pondering new storytelling forms and ideas for beats, keeping in mind Steven Berlin Johnson’s observation that sports is more of an “old-growth forest” in terms of Web coverage and competition than other parts of the news. Anyway, I’ll try to do some posts from Poynter as events allow.

On other fronts, editorsweblog discusses the Associated Press’s latest moves and goals with Jim Kennedy, AP’s director of strategic planning. Jim and I were colleagues together at the WSJ.com, so it pains me how much I disagree with what he has to say here. He fleshes out what AP means by landing pages, which at least sounds better than suggested by the initial reports I reacted to somewhat savagely here. But the fact that these pages will be largely automated sets off all kinds of alarm bells for me — automated topic pages are generally the box canyons of newspaper search, eroding reader loyalty by dead-ending them somewhere that’s not particularly useful. (To see how to do topic pages right, check out the New York Times — but think about the amount of work behind it. Now, if the AP wanted to go in the direction of creating truly curated, honest-to-goodness news guides around subjects of import, I’d be much more interested.) And Jim’s response to criticism about the AP selling content to portals seems beside the larger point that’s only beginning to be examined — instead of talking about Reuters and AP Web revenue, I’d like to hear him answer Dave Krieger’s question about why the aggregation arm of the AP should still exist.

Besides, the overall idea is still based on the premise that Google News isn’t doing its job very well, which certainly isn’t true for me. Witness the Google News Timeline, which I can’t wait to play with — and desperately wish (as do others) that I’d seen invented by a newspaper.

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What Do We Call This New News Thing?

Posted in Branding, Digital Experiments, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 17, 2009

I’ve been writing Reinventing the Newsroom for about six weeks now, and I keep running into a vocabulary problem: What should I call an organization that reports on news, creates stories and puts those stories out via a variety of media channels?

Newspaper? The obvious answer, and there’s a long tradition of print terms being reused for the Web — for example, I came up as a rim editor and became a slot editor even though we never sat in such a configuration or passed physical copy back and forth. But I’m not happy with that answer — reflexive thinking about the “paper” part is a big reason so many of these organizations are scrambling to catch up with the digital world.

Web newspaper? Seems like it ignores the paper part, which is kicking the pendulum too far the other way.

Web-first newspaper? Too insidery, and a bear to type.

E-paper? Means something else. Horrid term anyway.

News organization? Bloodless and drab. Sounds like a wire service, or a TV station with pretensions.

Newsroom? Refers to the actual shop where the work gets done, not to the product put into the hands and ears and in front of the eyeballs of readers.

Suggestions cheerfully accepted (and much appreciated) via comments, email, Twitter, Facebook message or any other way you like.

A Friday Read: I think Joe Posnanski is the best sportswriter in the business, and he deserves that praise for both his newspaper work and his blogging efforts. He’s got a new thing going — The Future of Newspapers, in which he’s a ringmaster for thoughts on a subject obviously dear to my heart.

Last week Joe put the spotlight on Dave Krieger, another fine sportswriter who moved to the Denver Post after the demise of the Rocky Mountain News. Krieger reviews the Rocky’s last days before moving on to the Sturm and Drang about Google and the Associated Press. About which he has a question:

Why should any newspaper in the internet age be a member of an organization that takes that paper’s original material, rewrites it and distributes it around the world without attribution or compensation? In fact, an organization that charges the newspaper for the privilege? Inasmuch as the AP is a creation of the newspaper industry, is it not accurate to say we are complicit in the theft of our own material? Aren’t newspapers the agents of their own destruction every day?

Good question. The arm of the AP that produces original content is one thing, but what’s the use of the aggregator arm in this day and age? Papers — ugh, there’s that vocabulary problem again — are slowly but surely coming to the realization that they can and should link to other papers and sites for news that isn’t part of their core mission. Why do they need a middleman to do that for them, let alone an expensive one?

Memo for San Diego: Start by Creating Communities

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 6, 2009

I’m not in San Diego, though given the grisly weather here in New York City I wish I were. Nor am I a newspaper executive. (And I’m very glad I’m not!)

But if I were somehow transported across the country and magicked into a suit and tie for the formerly secret meeting taking place on the sidelines of the Newspaper Association of America’s annual get-together, I’d say something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, we are on a burning raft. Our papercentric business model is vanishing, and needs to be replaced with something new. Nobody, least of all me, knows what that something new will be. But I can guess at the underpinnings of it.

All is not lost. We have a business with a number of strengths that executives in more-nascent industries would kill for: a highly trained work force with skills that aren’t irreplaceable but are hard to duplicate; actual revenue and customers; a longstanding place in society that even doubters and grousers regard as critical; and an institutional history that’s woven through the larger history of our cities and towns.

The problem is we need to transfer those strengths from serving the crumbling model to the new one that’s being built experiment by experiment. Now, it’s hard to place bets on experiments, but most all of the experiments seem to agree on one thing: Our news operations have to become part of strong, self-identifying and self-reinforcing communities of readers.

Web sites that work are more than just distribution vehicles for producers of content — they’re communities where readers come to visit and stay a while. There, those readers talk back to stories and news. They talk with each other, forming friendships and romances and enmities and cliques. They push sites in directions they want them to go (which may not be the same destinations the site creators have in mind). They point out errors, logical flaws and missed opportunities. They bring news of their own to the discussion. They care for the communities and defend them against both outsiders who would do them harm and insiders who aren’t living up to community standards.

There’s no made-to-order recipe for creating communities like that — when a site “tips” and becomes one, it’s wonderful to see. In my own daily Web rounds I see it lots of places, from snarky sports sites to Brooklyncentric blogs to discussions of Star Wars to my own co-written blog about the Mets to Facebook to Twitter.

But I don’t see it very much on newspaper sites.

Which, if you think about it, is very strange. We have traffic, yes — but we’ve done poorly in getting those visitors to stay, in turning traffic into communities. By now it’s not terribly helpful to debate what we did wrong — better by far to figure out how to change it. We can do that in a number of closely related ways. We have to push our reporters and writers farther down from the mountaintop, so they’re not just writing for readers but interacting with them in forums, live chats, beat blogs and blog chats and social media. We have to pull our readers higher up the mountain, so that their own stories and voices and news have a place in our news organizations. We have to grab hold of our towns in any way we can, so our newspapers are once again gateways for finding out everything from society events to Little League games, latest crime stats to distant history, drink specials to local-government salaries. We have to get that information to readers whether it comes from our own newsroom, our competitors’, or from readers themselves. And we have to do it via whatever device or medium our readers want.

That may sound like a laundry list of stuff, but it’s really two ideas that will reinforce each other: Reclaim our towns and build communities around that work.

Right now there’s what looks like a curious inversion in the world of the Web: Hot social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter command breathless headlines despite having no clearly defined plan for being viable businesses, while long-established businesses like ours are treated like they’re already dead. But the conventional cyber-wisdom is correct: Facebook and Twitter may not have enviable P&L sheets, but they have a bedrock foundation of solid, self-reinforcing community upon which they can build. For the most part, we don’t.

That self-reinforcing community is the foundation that every news operations that wishes to survive must now build. Without it, attempting to implement any new monetization scheme would be a doomed exercise in building on sand. The sooner we create communities, the sooner we can come back here and turn our attention to what they’ll pay for and how they’ll pay for it.

That’s our mission. Now let’s go out and get to it.

Thoughts on Two Must-Reads

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 16, 2009

Journalists are by nature a disputatious lot, so it’s rare to find them in widespread agreement on anything. But those trying to map the newspaper industry’s rough transition to the digital age have spoken virtually unanimous on this: Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable is to be read and digested and read again.

Shirky explains, with a clear and unflinching gaze, how various scenarios mapped out by newspapers in the 1990s didn’t come to pass, while the unthinkable scenario — the one that would destroy the print-newspaper model — did. And he explains (with a refreshing lack of axes to grind) that the arrangement old newspaper hands came to regard as a law of physics was something else entirely: The economics of printing made newspapers the only viable way for advertisers to reach a mainstream audience, creating a situation where, in effect, “Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident.” And, Shirky adds, ramming the point home: “That the relationship between advertisers, publishers and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”

But most of Shirky’s post is about the future: “Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.” And, a bit later on, he notes that “[t]hat is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”

It’s a sober-minded take, but not a despairing one. The way to strengthen journalism, Shirky writes, is to conduct a lot of little experiments, to find the Craiglists and the Wikipedias that will, in time, create new models and new social contracts.

The bookend to Shirky’s post is a speech delivered by Steven Johnson at South by Southwest. In it, Johnson uses his late-1980s routine of hanging around a Providence, R.I., bookstore waiting for the latest MacWorld as a jumping-off point for exploring what’s happening to journalism. He looks at the transformation of journalism about technology and politics in order to predict what may happen to more mainstream journalism. Why is tech journalism a good predictor? “Because it is the old-growth forest of the web,” Johnson explains. “It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve.”

From there, Johnson uses tech and politics to explore what he sees as a new ecosystem of news, one in which there are many more sources of information to choose from than there used to be, but also much more noise to filter out. And here, he suggests, is journalism’s way forward: to serve as an authoritative guide to help readers find the useful information out there. “If [newspapers] embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been,” he writes.

These two articles weren’t designed as bookends, but they’re admirably complementary. They’re clear-eyed about what’s happened but also point the way forward, even while firmly insisting that a path is more to be found than followed. I hope they will be read and re-read in journalism circles, by men and women in corner offices and on newsroom floors.

What’s the lesson to be drawn from them? I’d summarize it like this:

Stop thinking of where you work as a newspaper. This is not the same as abandoning the print paper — only the idea that it’s the pillar of what you do has to go. The business model for print newspapers that we all grew up with is splintering, and there is no business model for Web newspapers that will replace it — that’s our industry’s Godot, so quit waiting for it.

Start thinking of where you work as a venture-capital shop. Compared with other competitors in the news industry, you have some advantages: a big audience, smart people with hard-to-replace skills, and money. It’s time to get your house in order technologically and culturally, and fund a host of start-up experiments — experiments based not on what you think you need but on what readers are demonstrating they want. A lot of those experiments will fail. But some of them will succeed — and the ones that do will open up new possibilities. And the time to start is right now.

The Hourly Miracle Reconsidered — Plus Friday Quick Links

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 13, 2009

Yesterday’s post sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and former WSJ.com colleague Michael. Michael was discussing the idea that reporters and editors are the last great generalists — you come in in the morning, get an assignment, learn as much as you can and then publish the best that you’ve got when your deadline arrives. From there, we were discussing how the Web has accelerated that to a breakneck pace and made the process iterative — leading to extreme (and extremely enjoyable) cases like covering Election Night and revising the same Web story 30 or 40 times.

But of course that’s not the only way to cover a story online — in fact, it’s a somewhat old-fashioned one, the wire service in Web clothing. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that, but as publishing tools have gotten better and more flexible, we’ve been given some terrific alternatives.

For example, you can turn my Election Night job inside-out — instead of creating a succession of camera-ready stories telling readers what you know now, start a conversation that will continue throughout the event in which you tell them each significant thing you learn. This is the liveblogging model, and it’s a great one for events like Election Night. (I was in Italy for the 2008 presidential election, where I stayed up until 3 a.m. listening to a streamed audio feed of CNN and reloading fivethirtyeight.com, which I kept trying to turn into a minute-to-minute liveblog by sheer force of will.) For long-running stories (Katrina or Madoff, for instance), a blog or topic page can create larger context for individual stories and other items, which ideally drives repeat visits and brand loyalty. (But beware the automated topic page — nobody likes getting dumped in a link farm.) The concept of beatblogging extends this idea further, and is an ideal way to build a connection between a reporter and his or her audience. (Because, as I kicked off this blog by saying, your best reporters should be micro-brands in their own right.)

What gives me pause about the conversation model of news is that it can be taxing for the reader who arrives in the middle — nobody likes to be the guy who walks in halfway through a great tale. As always with the Web, I think the answer is that ideally you do both. There will be readers who want to track a story in real-time along with the reporter and other readers, and readers who want a solid account of what’s known at a given moment, and you should serve them both. This isn’t redundant — the two can reinforce each other quite nicely.

Three quick links for a Friday:

At Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor asks a very good question: Why don’t more news sites link to things that have obvious link potential? As I commented on Tim’s post, I think this mostly happens with repurposed print content put online by a staff stuck with editing-and-publishing software that doesn’t give them much if any help. You can get to this unfortunate pass by having a paper-to-Web flow that’s automated and dumb or by having one that’s manual and exhausting, but it’s no fun either way. Missed links used to drive me crazy at WSJ.com, and there we had a full night crew of passionate folks, which is a lot more than many papers have. The problem was that our folks spent their nights shoving rocks uphill, and so the extras tended not to get done. It’s not an excuse for missing links, but having seen the problem firsthand I have sympathy for the journalists who miss them. The answer, in my mind, is to make sure papers have a system that lets journalists be journalists. That won’t solve the problem in itself, but it will get you to a point where it’s much easier to solve.

Sticking with Nieman (a consistently interesting and engaging blog), Joshua Benton chats with Andy Prutsok, publisher of the Norfolk Reflector, about life without the AP. Prutsok says his paper hasn’t missed the wire (or the $48,000 annual fee), in large part because he considers his franchise “100% local news,” and that his readers haven’t missed it: “Our readers couldn’t care less if we carry the same news that they can get off the evening news.” Sub “lots of other Web sites” for “the evening news” and you’ve got the situation a lot of Web papers are facing, and an answer they should consider. Andy Prutsok understands the rules of the And World and is using them to sharpen his paper’s focus.

At Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts looks askance at Hearst and the case of the Seattle P-I. Like most everyone in journalism, I’m keenly interested in how the P-I’s online-only life will unfold, and am rooting for them. But it seems like Hearst is making it harder than it should be for reporters and editors to sign on to what could be a pivotal and fascinating experiment. Journalism is hard enough work as it is.

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Why Long-Form Journalism Is Still Relevant

Posted in Long-Form Journalism, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 9, 2009

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten is a terrific writer and reporter, one with the ability to take a story and see around its corners to find a better story, or a unique take that not only gets you thinking but just might change how you think about something from that point forward.

I first encountered Weingarten through his Washington Post chats, in which he came across as a real personality, sounding completely natural and at ease online. (He wasn’t the only one — in my WSJ.com days I was always envious of how the Post just seemed to get the style and tone of the Web. And yes, I’m aware that apparent ease was undoubtedly the product of a lot of hard work.) Then there was Weingarten’s terrific recounting of a social experiment in which he parked Joshua Bell in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station to see what kind of reaction one of the world’s greatest classical musicians would draw from harried, hurried commuters, a story that won a well-deserved Pulitzer. (Don’t miss the follow-up discussion on washingtonpost.com.)

Yesterday Weingarten wrote a very different story, one  about parents who accidentally leave their infants to die in hot cars. It’s a seemingly impossible mistake that happens a lot more than you might think — every year, 15 to 25 children die in the U.S. this way. Sometimes their parents are charged with murder or manslaughter; sometimes authorities recognize that it’s nothing more than a horrible mistake. Either way, it leaves parents broken by unfathomable grief and guilt.

Weingarten tells the story unsparingly and beautifully. He zooms in to the smallest details of accidents and out to statistics, each of them devastating in their own way. He weaves family stories together with explanations for how such a tragedy can occur to anybody. He’s present in the story, but very quietly. For example, hearing the audio of a 911 call at a critical turn in the story, his reaction is authoritative, human and spare to the point of being stark: “The tape is unendurable.”  And the story ends with a twist that you don’t see coming, and that will knock you flat.

It’s a masterpiece, the kind of story you very quickly realize you’ll never forget. (Seriously — it’s that good. If you haven’t read it already, go do so and come back when you’re done.) But while I was reading it, an unwelcome thought kept nagging at me: Does this story have a place in digital-age journalism? Will anyone run something like this in five years?

To be clear, Weingarten’s story isn’t just print ported to Web. There’s a slideshow, an audio interview with a family to whom this happened, hundreds of comments and a chat with readers. But the power of the story is the words — it’s a long-form story told slowly and with exquisite care, the product of extensive intervewing and research. For today’s news organizations such a story is an expensive undertaking, and the way it’s delivered flies in the face of a lot of digital-age advice: write shorter, break stories into easily-digested chunks, give readers something to interact with. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the Weingarten story would work that way — its power comes from holding you and keeping you and making you think about the unimaginable one way and then another way. Breaking it into pieces would dilute that power.

But storytelling mechanics aside, the question remains: Will stories like this still get told in five years?

I think they will. In fact, I think they’ll be more important.

The reason is that long-form journalism like this is very, very hard to copy. The Web has wrecked papers’ print-era advantages by putting them in competition with every other paper and news sources that didn’t exist just a few years ago. A lot of news has become commoditized, with more and more outlets offering essentially the same stories. Moreover, the competitive advantage of the beloved scoop is rapidly disappearing — with papers publishing online, the life of a scoop is now measured in hours or even minutes. As I’ve written before, it’s no longer the Or World but the And World, and standing out is increasingly difficult.

For the most part, papers have to adjust to the And World and live by its rules. But there are opportunities to push back against it, and they boil down to offering content that other news providers can’t copy quickly or easily. There are a number of potential ways to do that. You can go very local, offering readers information other new sources don’t have. You can focus on your best writers as brands, emphasizing that their personalities and voices make them unique. Another way is tried-and-true investigative reporting.

Weingarten’s story can’t be copied quickly enough to erode its competitive advantage — any me-too stories that appear in the next couple of days will be hurriedly written affairs that won’t come anywhere close to the original. (I’m not picking on the poor reporters who’ll get that assignment, having drawn this particular short straw myself — they just won’t have time.) Couple that with Weingarten’s gifts as a writer (the reporter as brand), and you have a story that will remain the Post’s in a way that few stories can today.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think that after the news industry emerges from its current crisis, long-form investigative pieces like Weingarten’s will be more valued, even in an era of smaller newsrooms that have moved away from the print product and the storytelling forms that grew up with it. Not every paper will be able to support such work, and it will no longer be the goal that every young reporter wants to reach. But I think it will be valued, and aspired to not just as a journalistic goal, but as a business goal as well. And that’s a comforting thought.

The ‘Or’ World and the ‘And’ World

Posted in Branding, Cultural Change, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 3, 2009

Like a lot of journalism folks, I’ve been avidly following the drama surrounding the fate of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — and needless to say I’m rooting for the P-I to succeed as an online-only publication after the print paper ceases to be.

In The Stranger last week, Eli Sanders crafted a gripping portrait of a newspaper whose reporters are betwixt and between, torn between wanting to continue at a far leaner, online-only P-I and wondering if they’d be better off on their own. Sanders discusses some of the experiments already under way at the paper, such as prominent home-page links to other publications, including ones that could be seen as rivals. And he nails the philosophy behind such links: “[I]f enough Northwest readers choose to always begin their online information-gathering journeys at the P-I—even though the links there may quickly take them to Lifehacker or West Seattle Blog or Slog or even the Times—the publication could return, in an online way, to the role that traditional newspapers used to enjoy: powerful gatekeeper.”

Yep. That’s the idea — that there’s still time for newspapers to reclaim their role as the connective tissue of their towns, not by being one of the sole sources for reliable, easily distributed local news and information (that era is long gone), but by making their local-reporting expertise, institutional history and brand strength the core of something new. Perhaps that something new will be a loose network of news and community and micro-sites and guides built up by reporters and readers and advertisers and others. The P-I‘s current experiments are steps in that direction.

But if they’re going to get there, papers will have to confront reactions like the one quoted by Sanders, from an unnamed P-I reporter reacting to the home-page links: “Sheesh. What’s next? Linking to the Times?”

Well, yes. Absolutely. To me, this goes to the core of how newsrooms need to reinvent themselves for the digital world.

Newspapers used to be built around the concept of the Or World, aiming themselves at a hypothetical reader who would pass by the newsstand or the boxes on the corner, take a quick look at the front pages (above the fold) and pick one paper or the other. That world is long gone. Today we live in the And World — the Internet rapidly spreads scoops and good reads everywhere, and a reader who’s interested in a topic will devour everything he or she can find about it from a wealth of sources. Web rules, in other words.

Applying And World rules drives a lot of the practices followed in online journalism, or urged upon those trying to make the transition to it — and some of them understandably strike Or World folks as heretical. There’s Jeff Jarvis‘s maxim to “do what you do best and link to the rest,” for example, as well as the various strategies for aggregating links and/or having editors “curate” coverage by linking to other sources. (The Daily Fix, the column I first edited and then co-wrote for WSJ.com, was an early — and I thought very effective — example of curating links.)

These And World philosophies can be used as cover for slashing staff and dumbing down a paper by jettisoning coverage of international news, national news, business, science or the arts. But to me, that’s misusing them: The idea isn’t “do what you do best and ignore the rest,” and there’s a big difference between the And World and the Not World.

Well-chosen links are an exercise in trust: They admit that a paper may not have everything, but promise readers that the paper will be a trustworthy source for finding anything. Keeping that promise makes a paper more likely to be a starting point for readers — a looser version of the gatekeeper role papers once enjoyed, and could still recapture. But the flip side is that not helping readers find information they want — for instance, by ignoring a chief competitor’s story — erodes trust. In the And World, that’s a surefire way to get discarded.

So yes, the P-I should link to the Times. Once that was forbidden, and anyone who suggested otherwise would have been thought crazy. Soon it will be mandatory, and the same rule will apply.

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