Friday, September 26, 2008

Somewhere, they are still reading newspapers!

The National Newspaper Association (which generally represents weeklies and small dailies in the U.S.) claims that "community newspapers" are alive, well, and prospering. They've announced the results of a study done by the University of Missouri's Reynolds Journalism Institute, which appears to indicate that in smaller markets, people are, possibly, actually increasing their newspaper reading.

NNA Executive Director Brian Steffens said that most of the news about the financial health of newspapers is coming from the largest 100 to 250 newspapers.

“That is just a small slice of the picture,” he said....

Steffens noted that in the most recent study, 77 percent of the respondents rated community newspaper local coverage good to excellent. Since 2005, NNA has had three studies done. Steffens said the results from all three are consistent....

The three studies sampled consecutively smaller markets. The first one tested markets with a population of 100,000, the second study sampled markets with a population of 50,000 and the third study looked at markets with a circulation of less than 25,000.
There's a graph showing "very often" readership increasing from about 40 percent to nearly 70 percent over the three studies. But of course, these studies are not consistent in the types of markets they examined. Furthermore, the study's details are not available to you and me; they're hidden behind the organization's membership firewall. (Although some details of the 2005 and 2007 studies are available at the Reynolds Institute site.)

It would be nice to look at those details, but I would suggest the reasons the graph trends upward over the three studies is simply that in the smallest markets, you find the oldest readers. If the NNA studied readership in the same markets over a period of time, they'd find the same overall readership decline the largest papers are seeing, especially among younger demographics.

Now (full disclosure here), I served briefly on the NNA board myself, and I know Brian Steffens and some of the current board members. In my interactions with the group, I often heard the mantra that "community newspapers" are doing quite well, thank you very much. And in fact, they probably are, because they tend to be more in tune with their communities and their readers than big dailies. It's possible this lulls some of them into complacency, as well—in fact, many weeklies and small dailies are still resistant to the idea of offering all, or even any, of their content free online.

There may be a delayed effect, but I believe these newspapers are just as vulnerable to such problems as the inroads of Craiglist on classified advertising and the decline of readership among younger readers as the big boys are, and they should be urgently pursuing solutions by becoming online-driven news organizations.

The good news is their size: small means nimble, and with that comes the ability to innovate, launch quickly, keep a finger on the pulse of the market, react rapidly, and keep things simple. The dinosaurs in big markets tend to have a bit of trouble with those things.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Globe's new niche

Here's an interesting development: the Boston Globe has launched a new sports tab called OT (which stands for Our Town-Our Sports), kicking off with a press run of 20,000 copies to be sold for 50 cents a copy. The venture apparently has no real online component except a blog. So much for my theory that to succeed in the future, news ventures need to be built around an online-first presentation. But of course, the differences are that (a) Boston is a completely sports-crazy town, (b) the Globe has a fine, edgy sports team capable of doing more, and (c) we're talking about sports here, not news, and when it comes to sports, you can sell print, TV, online, T-shirts, videogames — hell, people will even pay to go to a live sports event. What we have here is a niche product. If it succeeds, and I think it will, I would not be surprised to see the Globe try out an entertainment tab, visitor guides, and even publications aimed at niche demographics like mothers, working women, the elderly, and singles. It's all part of the fracturing of the once-monolithic interests of the American public, which is demolishing the newspaper business while creating many other opportunities (as I expounded upon previously).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I want my Interface Agents, right now

At the risk of getting too Google-heavy in my posts here...

What the hell. You have to pay attention to the 800-pound Googrilla, even when they are just speculating. So Marissa Mayer, Google VP for "Search Products and User Experience" has posted to the Google Blog her thoughts on the Future of Search. Quoth Marissa:
The face of search will change dramatically over the next 10 years. Maybe it should contain even more videos and images, maybe it should sharply differentiate the relative weight and accuracy of the results more, maybe it should be more interactive in terms of refinements? We’re not sure yet, but we do know that the one thing that the search experience can’t be - especially in the face of the online media explosion we’re currently experiencing - is stagnant.
Actually, if you read the whole thing, she's not telling us much. But does it have something to do with how news will reach you in the future? Yes. Because that won't be stagnant, either.

This afternoon, at a certain moment, John McCain's campaign announced that he was pulling out of the planned Friday night presidential debate in order to attend to business in Washington. Within minutes, this news was on the Associated Press wire and atop the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post sites.

But Google News, which is (allegedly) brought to us without human intervention by proprietary algorithms lodged deep in the bunkers of Mountain View, took at least 30 minutes to begin featuring the fairly momentous development. I suspect that's because the machinery at Google looks for a certain amount of momentum in a story (numbers of news sources publishing it, and the speed at which it is spreading) to decide that it must be important. Yet, earthshaking developments (not that McCain's decision was one of those) can easily be broken by one or two news organizations that will own them for a while before anyone else picks them up.

In a (future) world where news is brought to us instantaneously on portable electronic devices of some kind, we will expect someone or something to do the sorting-out for us. We don't want to have to glean, ourselves, the stuff that's of interest to us from a broad stream of news bulletins coming at us. We'll need a news search function that's tailored to our individual needs. And we'll want it to be instantaneous, just as basic search is today—not delayed by 30 minutes, or even 3 minutes.

In a way, this brings us back to the "interface agents" posited by Patti Maes back in the dark ages of 1993, described in my first post. As envisioned at the time, these "Knowbots" might roam the Internet on your behalf, finding information of interest to you. Given computer speeds and indexing algorithms at the time, this was not seen as an instantaneous function—the internet would be huge, so your agents would need some time, maybe days, to cover all that ground. But as it turns out, of course, no matter how vast vaster the internet gets, or how broad the bandwidth of news coming at us, we want instant delivery of crucial news and information.

Moreover, Maes's proposed agents had intelligence—they would learn, gradually, what your interests and priorities were, and taylor their deliveries accordingly. Aside from perhaps prioritizing stories according some keywords you've specified, that function is still somewhere past the horizon for all online news sites.

So, Marissa, back to the drawing board. The gap is down to 30 minutes, but that's an eternity. And, along with even more speed, start building some intelligence into my Google News—it should be able to figure out, without me telling it, that I'm interested (among other things) in any kind of news about the Red Sox, the island of Texel in the Netherlands, the politics of Vermont, and deep-sea archaeology.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why not Wikify?—Updated 1

It turns out there is at least one other voice crying in the wilderness: "Wikify, wikify!" (See my recent post entitled "Why not Wikify?"

Matt Thompson, who blogs personally at Snarkmarket, is currently on a one-year fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute of the University of Missouri, where he is working on a research project entitled "Wikipedia-ing the News." (via Fimoculous) From his original proposal:
To paint a broad picture: Imagine if the work of the hundreds of reporters dispatched daily to cover a city didn’t merely fade into an obscure archive, but added day after day to the work that came before it. An online news site in the era of Wikipedia would be a living archive, adaptable to suit any context, growing to encompass all aspects of life in a community. Entries would be deeply and meaningfully interlinked to other entries, elegantly situating every news event in multiple larger contexts. The “latest news” on the site could be a kind of changelog, reflecting new additions or edits in the system. The site would be a news commons atop which other narrative presentations of the news — stories, blogs, videos, games — could sit.
He said it better than I did, but a couple of my paragraphs offer seamless elaboration:
And then, dare I suggest, why not allow readers to edit the wiki as well, with the reporter who "owns" the issue keeping an eye on it to prevent abuse? It works at Wikipedia itself, why would it not work at a local newspaper wiki?

Once established, readers could add new topics, including pages on the history and amenities of the area, on elected and appointed local officials and legislators, on businesses and non-profit organizations, on schools and churches, on clubs, bands, rivers, mountains, parks and what-have-you. Every new news story might come with a series of wiki references to allow readers to explore the backgrounds of not only the issues but also the personalities, buildings and organizations involved.
See also Matt's "elevator pitch," or capsule summary of what he's talking about.

As Matt points out, this whole notion was suggested in the American Press Institute's February 2008 report, "NewspaperNext 2.0—Making the Leap Beyond 'Newspaper Companies'" (PDF, page 13). I had read their idea and should have mentioned it, but at least as described in their report, API's notion of a "localpedia" sounded more descriptive than dynamic. It did not incorporate the "living archive" aspect Matt and I have envisioned, in which the local wiki follows all ongoing news stories and the "latest news" becomes the equivalent of a "changelog," which reflects the stories most recent incremental changes.

Matt's cubicle neighbor at Reynolds is my friend Bill Densmore, who is there working on another project worthy of extended mention (soon!), the Information Valet Project. I'll be keeping tabs on both Matt's and Bill's progress with interest!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Monetizing Google News

Google News, from the time of its launch in 2002 until January, 2006, carried a "Beta" label, meaning (presumably) that it was in a development stage. When "Beta" was finally dropped, with no other apparent changes to the site. To this day, Google News carries no ads, but it has about 20 fully-dedicated employees at the Googleplex.

Now, Google has plenty of revenue and can easily afford the non-revenue-producing employees in that unit, but you do have to ask, how does Google monetize Google News?

The conventional wisdom has been that Google doesn't want to put ads directly on Google News pages, because the content-providing news organizations would rebel. They like the fact that Google indexes their stories and drives traffic to them, but they might object if Google put AdWords on the site. And in fact, many of those news organizations carry Google AdWords on their own sites, so Google benefits by driving traffic to them (and that feeling is mutual, given the way AdWords revenue is split between Google and the carrying sites).

Moreover, Google displays News results on its Web Search pages, and depending on the search term, AdWords do appear there. For example, try doing a Google Web search on "stock market," and you'll see Google News results, AdWords, Google BlogSearch and GoogleBooks results all on the first search results page (at least, for me, right now), yielding multiple ways for Google to monetize that particular search. (Other searches might include also Google Shopping results, still in Beta after all these years, where Google makes money via Google Checkout, the availability of which is prominently indicated where appropriate).

All of which is preamble to Google's newly announced News Archive Search. In reality, this feature has been around for a couple of years as well, so it's a little puzzling why Google made a fuss about announcing it this month.

What seems to be new is that now, Google will be cooperating with newspapers in scanning their microfilm archives, and sharing AdWords revenue with them when served in conjunction with search results from their sites.

One editor, Andrew Smith of the Dallas Morning News, opines that "it's nice to know that the company that's putting us newspapers out of business will at least preserve our memory."
This kind of comment is perhaps to be expected from the legacy media, but the bottom line is that Google has figured out yet another way to monetize content it didn't create and doesn't own.

It's high time for the legacy media types to figure out how to do the same thing with content they did create and do own.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why not Wikify?

Most news organizations, both online-only and traditional media with web sites, are keenly scanning the technological horizon for the latest trends to incorporate into their sites. As noted yesterday, Twittering is now in the news site toolkit, joining a host of features adopted earlier—including discussion boards, commenting, video and audio clips, blogs, personalized home pages, RSS feeds and site search, along with all manner of ad presentation techniques from pop-ups to contextual ads to Flash.

So, why haven't newsrooms noticed Wikipedia? And why haven't they considered what might be done in newsrooms with the freely-available, open source, MediaWiki software that drives Wikipedia and many other wiki sites?

Here's how a reporter approaches a story at a local paper. She gathers information about what's happening by going to the event, covering the meeting, and/or interviewing some sources. Then, back at the desk, she usually rummages through a bunch of files and notes, ransacks the morgue where clip files are kept, and/or searches through whatever electronic archive system the paper may possess, in order to add background to the story. This is important because most stories are part of a larger, ongoing local issue that may have years of background readers need to be continually reminded of, and even a fire or murder can benefit from some background on the building or the victim culled from the newspaper's records.

The thing is, this process must be repeated whenever there's a new development, and especially when there's a new reporter on the beat, which is frequently, these days. Similarly, readers interested in researching an issue need to delve into the paper's archives online or at the public library and potentially go through many stories to get the picture. Wouldn't it make sense to build all of the back story into a wiki on the topic, and to make it the responsibility of the reporter to update the wiki whenever something new happens? And once the wiki is created, why not make it available online, linked in the printed and online versions of the story, so a reader can get a summary of all the background the paper possesses, not just whatever the reporter considers relevant to the current story.

And then, dare I suggest, why not allow readers to edit the wiki as well, with the reporter who "owns" the issue keeping an eye on it to prevent abuse? It works at Wikipedia itself, why would it not work at a local newspaper wiki?

Once established, readers could add new topics, including pages on the history and amenities of the area, on elected and appointed local officials and legislators, on businesses and non-profit organizations, on schools and churches, on clubs, bands, rivers, mountains, parks and what-have-you. Every new news story might come with a series of wiki references to allow readers to explore the backgrounds of not only the issues but also the personalities, buildings and organizations involved.

If anyone is doing something even remotely like this, I'd like to know. I'm aware only of one stab taken toward this in Brattleboro, VT, where a "Brattleboro Community Brain Trust" in wiki format is slowly accumulating content. Very slowly. It's mostly historical stuff and it's not updated with current events. The latest news on it seems to be Brattleboro's resolution against a war with Iran, passed in March 2008, which is published without background or other context. The site's timeline for Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant that's the hottest issue in town, ends in 2007, even though there have been almost daily developments this year in the plant's effort to be relicensed for another 20 years of operation.

Elsewhere, Wikispot is trying to foment the creation of local wikis, not in association with news media (have they tried, though?). The most successful of these appears to be in Davis, CA. You'll find a lot of information about Davis there, but the most recent news on it is dated June 23, 2008. And it features no effort to wikify issues rather than individual news events.

Keith Buchanan, a McClatchy staffer, posted a brief thought this summer about newspaper-sponsored local wikis on the McClatchy blog, but the idea seems to have landed with a very soft thud there. Wikipedia itself has a page on local wikis around the world, which demonstrates that not many of them have gained any traction, and none of them are sponsored by a news organization. The definition there of "city wiki" does not even include the idea of using the wiki to track ongoing issues and other news stories.

It's often said that newspapers are the first draft of history. (Today, Twitter is, but that was yesterday's news.) With wiki technology, newspapers can write the next draft, and continue to update and refine it, assisted by their readers. And it can help them "monetize" the Web, by getting more mileage out of the content they create, attracting more site users, generating more page views, and selling more ad exposures.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


So, back in June I was at a conference in California, when the organizer asked the group (of 125 or so attendees, most of them under 45) "How many of you are on Twitter?"

"Twitter" had entered my consciousness, peripherally, but I had not the foggiest idea what it really was. About half the group (probably the youngest half) raised their hands. The organizer told them he had set up a Twitter group for the conference, so that people could Tweet one another about what was going on. Then someone explained Twitter to the rest of us. Basically, it's microblogging—Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters, and the idea is to post them as you go about your business so that your friends will know what your doing, how you're feeling, where you are, whatever you want them to know about you at that very moment. Twitter feeds can arrive on your cell phone or on your computer.

Getting an explanation of Twitter doesn't really tell you what it is, however. The usual reaction is, "Why would I want to know exactly what everyone is doing all the time?" Adherents say that you probably need to use it for while to get it. If you're not inclined, or equipped, to do that, well, Clive Thompson of the New York Times Magazine was brave enough to give it a try, and to explain it to us last Sunday in a piece entitled "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy."

He explains that living with a constant stream of Twitter and Facebook updates from a cloud of friends provides "ambient awareness":
Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.... The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life....

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.” Yet it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.
What does this have to do with news? Well, various media are starting to cover news via Twitter. (On occasion they're getting in trouble for it, for example by Tweeting the funeral of a 3-year old in Denver.)

Many sports reporters (who are often on the cutting edge of journalism) have started live-blogging by posting 10 or 15 times during games, and some are micro-blogging via Twitter. I don't think this kind of unidirectional microblogging is the best use for the technology, however. Twitter is by its nature a group awareness system.

So, soon, you might find Twitter groups forming at sports events, allowing fans to comment on the plays not only with their immediate neighbors in the stands, but with people seated throughout the stadium, or watching at home. Twitter also makes sense at other crowd events such as the recent political conventions, which were highly Twittered (or is it Tweeted?—whatever). But those were individual feeds (for example), not groups. The real potential is for a constant flow of messages from a posse of reporters, bloggers and even rank-and-file attendees at such an event creating a sense of the ambient flow and mood of the gathering. I'm not sure that spontaneous Twitter groups of this kind are happening*, yet, but it makes sense that they would develop. They would help reporters cover an event by providing another way to capture the mood, while at the same time providing an instant "ambient awareness" flow for anyone tuned in.

*(Steve Meyers at Poynter did set up a group called DNCJournalists for the Democratic Convention, which still has a bit of chatter on it, but it seems to have picked up only a miniscule following)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Niche media and objectivity

In my discussion the other day of whether newspapers are doomed, I set forth my theory that rather than the internet, it's the fracturing of America's once-monolithic set of interests and concerns that's sinking newspapers that are still trying to be mass media.

Along comes Farhad Manjoo, ex-Cornell-Sun editor, ex-Salon writer and currently Slate technology columnist, with a similar view and a corollary conclusion:
The mainstream is drying up. In some ways, we are returning to the freewheeling days before radio and television launched the very idea of mass media—the era of partisan newspapers and pamphleteers. But our niches, now, are more niche than ever before. We are entering what you might call the trillion-channel universe: over the last two decades, advances in technology—the digital recording and distribution of text, images, and sound over information networks, a.k.a., the modern world—have helped to turn each of us into producers, distributors, and editors of our own media diet. Now we collect the news firsthand through digital cameras, we send our accounts and opinions to the world over blogs, and we use Google, TiVo, the iPod, and a raft of other tools to carefully screen what we consume.
As I said. Manjoo then suggests this is leading also to an increase in bias:
Studies of the media and of human psychology, some conducted recently but many long before the digital revolution, provide compelling insight into the consequences of a fragmented media. Although information now flows more freely than it did in the past—and this is certainly a salutary development—today's news landscape will also, inevitably, help us to indulge our biases and pre-existing beliefs.
On my list to explore in this blog is one of those many niche media, so-called "citizen journalism" sites, which usually come with an activist-inspired stated mission of serving democracy but which in reality often have more of a slant than the "legacy media" they seek to supplant or augment. More on that soon.

Meanwhile, it seems to me the real opportunity in developing new media outlets is to find ways to be scrupulously objective, whether the reporting is being done by citizen journalists or "real" journalists. More on how that might come about soon, as well.

Monday, September 8, 2008

New entrant in the e-newspaper reader field

Just as we're discussing the Kindle and other existing e-book readers as newspaper reading devices, along comes word (in a New York Times story today) of a new entrant in the field, an e-reader as yet without a brand name, from the firm Plastic Logic of (where else?) Mountain View, CA. The screen is about 8.5 by 11 inches, around twice the size of the Kindle, Sony and Iliad screens, and its E-Ink screen is backed by a new plastic substrate developed at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory. It'll be on sale early next year at a price not yet announced.

It's good news that this "space" is getting more crowded—this will drive more newspaper publishers (and other news content producers) to get serious about publishing for e-readers, and price competition will attract more buyers.

Also, this will apparently be Plastic Logic's first and principal product, making the company a "pure play." (See the company's products page for links to video demos.) Their real aim is to get to market with a flexible screen, which has been the holy grail of e-paper—reusable electronic paper you can "roll up and put in your pocket." The Cavendish substrate will have this capability in future editions.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Kindle—any promise as a news delivery tool?

Can Kindle become the iPod of news?

It's got a lot going for it, but probably not, in its present incarnation. The Kindle was introduced a little less than a year ago by Amazon. The company won't say how many units it has sold, or how many e-books have been purchased by Kindle owners, or how many newspaper subscriptions. There's plenty of content available—currently 160,000 book titles, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, according to Amazon. But what concerns us here is news: right now, there are exactly 25 newspapers available, which is not a lot. They include the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, London Times, Le Monde, and Shanghai Daily, at prices ranging from $5.99 to $14.99 a month.

So, for well under the newsstand or home delivery price, you can be reading your favorite paper on an e-book reader, but the gadget will cost you $359. This is progress? Oh, you can also get your choice of a couple of dozen blogs like Huffington Post, Slashdot, Boing Boing, or The Onion for $1.99 a month, or one of 17 magazines for a $1.25 to $3.49.

Now, the trouble is, (a) no color, (b) most of this content is available for free online, wherever you can connect to the internet on your desk- or laptop. My normal morning surfing would add up to $100 or more a month, and a lot of other things I look at online are simply not reachable via Kindle.

But hold on, there's a solution. Via Feedbooks, you can create your own personalized newspaper from multiple RSS feeds. (The trouble with this is, of course, that while you can get the news mix you want, you're doing the kind of personal aggregation possible also at sites like DailyMe, for which the media creating the content get little or no revenue. But still, from a publisher's point of view, perhaps eyeballs are better than no eyeballs.)

The Kindle may well be the best-selling e-book reader around (allegedly 280,000 units sold), although there's no way to know for sure. What's next for Kindle? Several sources are rumoring an imminent 2.0 version: one with a larger, better screen, thinner body, and more streamlining in general. And Amazon also seems to be eyeing a truly logical market: e-textbooks.

A bigger user base is probably a prerequisite for more news dissemination via the Kindle, or any other e-book reader. So improvements in the Kindle's functionality features are steps in the right direction. But along with major and minor tweaks, it will take some major cost reductions to turn it into a more widely used tool for reading news.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Esquire and E-paper

If the newspaper business follows, technologically, the changes that cell phones have brought to the telephone business, or that the iPod has brought to the music business, then what we're waiting for is the iPod of news—an electronic device with all the portability and convenience of a printed newspaper, capable of receiving news and other content wirelessly and displaying it anywhere. The right gizmo could rapidly supplant the delivery of printed newspapers, the protestations of press barons notwithstanding.

That's been one of the hopes for the "electronic paper" substrate developed by the E Ink Corporation of Cambridge, MA, which grew out of the early research at the M.I.T. Media Lab I described a few days ago. It's an electronic display that differs critically from the standard backlit computer or cellphone screen, in that it has the look of paper, a finer resolution than standard screens, and is read by reflected light. This makes it easier to read and less tiring to the eye. And since it uses battery power only when the image changes, devices that use it can go much longer between recharges.

While E Ink's e-paper (they call it Electronic Paper Display or EPD) has been used in devices like Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, its real promise may lie in the fact that it can be produced in a thin, flexible, paperlike format. Flexible EPD gets its first major test and exposure this month on the cover of Esquire magazine's 75th anniversary issue (100,000 newsstand copies only), which will have an EPD cover that will feature a dynamic display powered by an imbedded chip and battery. (A nice complete explanation of the technology is here on FolioMag.)

It's not surprising that the rollout, several years in the making (and made possible by an ad for the Ford Flex crossover SUV) is in a magazine owned by the Hearst Corporation, which is an investor in E Ink. Hearst is also a major newspaper owner, and is undoubtedly looking at the promise and the possibilities of EPD for all of its publications. In fact, Hearst has reportedly obtained a one-year exclusive contract to use EPD in its products.

The Esquire cover is likely to feature a relatively simple changing display, like the early blinking ads on web sites. But despite a bit a flak from the green community, Hearst will certainly want to take this further—for example, imagine a multi-page EPD book with the same content capabilities as the Kindle or the Sony Reader. Or to imagine your morning newspaper delivered not with a thud on your front porch, but electronically to a sheet of EPD you that can roll up, take into the loo, or to Starbucks, or along on your commute, changing the page your viewing with a simple control on the edge, and reusable indefinitely for future editions. A test of such a system was rumored in Seattle last year. Hearst denied the plan, but it has to be in the range of possibilities they are exploring with E Ink.

That's good news. While the Kindle (which seems to have gained more traction than the Sony Reader) has both detractors and admirers, it's not the "iPod of news"—yet. The potential for e-paper displays has barely been scratched. (One wonders, for example, why gas station chains still change prices via the 19th-century manual technique of flipping numeral cards on the pumps, when an e-paper display would allow them to do it from a centrally located computer at the same time they change the price locked into the pump's electronics. E Ink does have products aimed at the sign industry.)

In any event, we'll be keeping a close watch on developments in this technology. In upcoming posts, we'll visit in greater depth the news delivery potential of the Kindle and Sony Reader, as well as the European entry in this race, the Iliad reader produced by iRex Technologies, which resulted from a collaboration between E Ink and Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands.

Are Newspapers Doomed?

As a continuation of yesterday's post inaugurating this blog:

Are newspapers doomed? It looks that way. The evidence is being chronicled daily in Paul Gillin's blog NewspaperDeathWatch. It features a list of newspapers large and small that have already shut down operations (among them, just in recent days: the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico, the Noblesville, IN Daily Times, and the Burley, ID South Idaho Press). Every day there is news of layoffs and buyouts in newsrooms and other departments—thousands, cumulatively. Around the country the "news hole"—the amount of space earmarked for news and features—is shrinking dramatically. And newspaper firms are reporting double-digit revenue declines every month and every quarter.

Of course, there's a recession on; that's affecting ad revenue and operating profits; and many newspaper firms are beholden to owners or Wall Street investors that want, or need, profit margins that have historically been high. The current slashing is a last-ditch effort to preserve those margins and, in some cases, to comply with debt covenants. The problem is that many newspapers may be damaged so severely by these cuts that readers will abandon them in droves, followed by some of the remaining advertisers, setting up a death spiral from which they can not recover.

But this crisis doesn't stem purely from the current economic downturn—it has been decades in the making.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, newspapers noticed that younger people weren't reading newspapers as much as their elders. The industry responded with youth-oriented features and a Newspapers-in-Education program, hoping to inculcate the daily newspaper habit. And, the philosophers among us said, "Look, when these kids grow up, get married, buy houses, have kids in school, and pay taxes, they'll read newspapers because they need to know what's going on." And indeed, some of them did. But the experience since the 1970s is that each succeeding age cohort reads newspapers less than the prior cohort. (Links: 1970-1997 trend, Sunday newspapers (PDF), 1967-1997 trend, daily newspapers (PDF), 1999-2006 trend). Moreover, as each cohort ages, it tends to reduce its newspaper readership. This is true even of the oldest age groups. Nothing the industry has done has made the slightest dent in these inexorable trends.

The industry now tends to point to the internet and suggest that it is both the problem and the opportunity—younger people read newspapers less because they get their news online, and the industry is benefiting from rapid growth in online readership and revenue.

But, hold on: the age-cohort readership trends started in the 1960s, not in 1995 or so when the online readership started to make an impact. This problem has been a long time coming. As the readership figures linked above show, around 1970, the nation was still fairly monolithic in its readership habits—all age groups were heavy newspaper readers with rates ranging from 70 to 76 percent.

Here's my view of what happened to that solid franchise. Go back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Everyone was in the same boat; the country was unified in its interests and concerns; everyone read newspapers and listened to radio to know what was going on. This continued through World War II, the Korean War, the early stages of the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. But the Baby Boom generation changed the game. With greater prosperity and less international turbulence to worry about, interests began to diversify enormously from the 1970s right through the current decade. It was a luxury we could afford—more cable channels, more movie screens, more books and magazines focused on more niche interests, more sports franchises, more highways to go to more malls, more resorts and more entertainment venues, more exotic foods on supermarket shelves, more diversity in every possible direction.

Daily newspapers can no longer reflect all this diversity in their pages. The idea of a single mass medium that everyone in a community or metropolis would want to read is no longer logical, any more than we are all likely to watch the same television programs or tune to the same website or radio station.

The World Wide Web, of course, has only accelerated this trend of diversification into niche interests. It was not the cause of the decline of newspaper readership, but it's not the solution, either.

So, why are newspapers doomed? Because, within a few years, the average newspaper reader will be of retirement age, and only the 65-and-up age cohort will still have a majority (but barely) that reads a daily newspaper. That's not a sustainable business model.

No newspaper or newspaper group has articulated a realistic strategy in response to this. Uniformly, they proclaim that while their online operations are growing and are important, print is still the foundation of their business. And that's a problem, because if newspapers didn't exist, no one in their right mind would launch a business that revolves around putting words and images on a pulp paper product every night and sending drivers in cars and kids on foot to deliver it door to door every morning. Can you imagine an angel investor or venture capitalist interested in that idea?

To have even a chance of survival, the mindset of the industry needs to become: We are in the business of publishing information content continuously on our web sites; every 24 hours (for now, and this may ultimately change to once or twice weekly) we gather some of that information into a printed product and distribute it, but our business is focused on and driven by our online operations. Right now, I don't see anyone in the industry articulating this direction unequivocally.

In the next posts, we'll start to explore: News after Newspapers—innovative business models, technologies and practices that will change how news is delivered and consumed.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Getting Started

To introduce myself and this blog:

For 30 years, I worked in newspapers -- as an advertising salesperson, an assistant circulation manager, an assistant business manager, an advertising sales manager, a marketing director, a general manager, a publisher, a group vice president. Along the way, I dabbled a bit on the news side by writing some columns and a few news stories. I was involved in everything from budgeting to production management, from managing personnel to coordinating major mergers, acquisitions and asset sales, from negotiating with unions to launching entirely new publications, from redesigning print products to launching and nurturing web sites. I retired from all this earlier this year.

Before getting printer's ink into my blood, I had a liberal arts education followed by a master's in hotel management and a stint running a country inn. So I figured out journalism and media management as I went along.

Early in my newspaper career, around 1979 or 1980, I went to a regional newspaper conference and attended a session at which the threat posed by cable systems was discussed. Cable systems at the time were expanding from a dozen or so channels to as many as 40 or 50 channels. What could they possibly do with all that bandwidth? Newspaper stiffs thought: they're going to steal our classified advertising—one channel for real estate, one channel for help wanted, one for used cars, and so on. And in fact, some cable systems experimented with that idea, and a few newspapers invested in countermeasures: they leased cable channels and sold their own ads on them. Ultimately, the threat evaporated when it became clear not many people were interested in viewing text ads scrolling on their TV screens. ESPN and a host of other enterprises sprang up to fill the available cable bandwidth.

But the experience got me interested in whether other electronic technology might eventually threaten or supplant newspapers. Earlier, the company I worked for had actually monitored and experimented with fax technology in the 1930s and 1940s, when the notion of a newspaper printed in one's home, by a giant fax machine on a roll of newsprint, was actually explored. The owners of the small newspaper group I worked for actually installed a prototype of such a device. It printed instantaneous headlines on a roll of paper that scrolled in a glassed-in display box outside the building. So the corporate culture was open to exploring new ideas.

In the 1980s, I kept track of pre-internet information technology experiments like the Minitel in France and other countries, Viewtron in Miami and Coral Gables, the pre-World Wide Web incarnations of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe, and the newsgroups of Usenet.

In January, 1993, I attended a conference called "News in the Future" organized by Nicholas Negroponte at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Among the many topics and presentations were such things "Iconic Steam-Based Video Logging" (methodology by Ken Haase for a keyword-searchable video archive system), "Autonomous Agents" and "Interface Agents" ("knowbots" being developed by Patti Maes, which would search the internet for news information of interest to their deployer), "Paper-Like Interfaces" (Walter Bender's very early work on the development of e-paper). The conference led to the formation of a consortium, later called IO (Information Organized), led by the lab, which seems to have lapsed into inactivity.

I felt, at the time, that despite the technological razzle-dazzle presented at the conference, that none of this was likely to supplant the printed newspaper, or "dead ink smeared on trees," which was the catch phrase used during the meeting, and I exchanged some letters with Negroponte discussing those thoughts.

Then, along came the World Wide Web (while it was released for general use later in 1993, it had not been mentioned at the January M.I.T. conference). Soon, in 1996, our newspapers began rudimentary web sites. We agonized whether putting our content online freely would cost us paying readers, but early on we decided that we'd publish online as much of our content as possible. While site traffic grew enormously, far faster than our expectations, paid circulation remained constant, for about a decade.

Like many other newspaper industry professionals, I felt that the Web was a way to expand our readership, but that print would always be with us—that neither readers nor advertisers would not abandon the convenience of a cheap, portable printed paper. Circulation and advertising sales figures supported this feeling.

But I no longer believe this is true. In the last few years, I have come around, finally, to agreeing that daily newspapers—"ink smeared on dead trees"—are dinosaurs. Newspaper businesses that take the right steps may be able to survive, but with few exceptions, the printed package delivered daily to the doorsteps of their customers will not be part of a successful business model. I'll explain why in my next post, and then this blog will focus on its title topic, "News after Newspapers."