Friday, October 31, 2008

The Numbers Game

As they do every six months, last week the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reported newspaper circulation averages for the "FAS-FAX period" from April through September. The news didn't look good, with weekday numbers down 4.64 percent year-over-year, and Sunday down 4.64 percent. This represented an acceleration of the prior-year pace of decline, which was 2.6 percent weekdays and 3.5 percent Sundays.

As usual, the industry tried to put a good spin on the numbers, as summed up by Russell Adams in the Wall Street Journal:
But the reality is in some ways less bleak than the latest numbers indicate: Some newspapers have raised newsstand prices, curtailed discounted copies and halted delivery to the least profitable customers. Also, while print circulation has been declining for years as readers continue their mass migration to the Web, many publishers point out they are reaching more readers than before through print and online. The problem for publishers is the printed paper commands higher ad rates than the Web so even as more people read newspaper content, the papers pull in less money.
Some newspapers were able to point to gains in overall combined audience of online and print readers. In particular, Matt Baldwin, V.P. of Research at MediaNews Group, wrote an indignant memo claiming growth in the total audience of the Denver Post (owned by MediaNews) and Rocky Mountain News (managed by MediaNews as part of a joint operating agreement). This came after the Post as well as the Rocky had each reported their print circulation drops the other day without, apparently, getting the online audience spin from their V.P. of Research.

An obvious question about this combined audience approach might be, aren't we comparing apples and oranges? The print portion of the averages reported (in the first link in the previous paragraph) are seven-day readers. A one-day reader counts as only one-seventh of a reader in that average. But the are adding to that the seven-day "unique visitor" number, in which a one-time, one-day web site visitor counts as one full reader. Apples and apples would demand adding only the one-day unique visitor average, which is undoubtedly much lower. Moreover, as acknowledged by Baldwin, some print readers are also site visitors, and nothing has been done to eliminate the overlap.

A set of web audience metrics that looks more reliable comes from the National Newspaper Association (NAA), which reports:
Newspaper Web sites attracted more than 68.3 million unique visitors on average (41.4 percent of all Internet users) in the third quarter of 2008, a record number that reflects a 15.8 percent increase over the same period a year ago, according to a custom analysis provided by Nielsen Online for the Newspaper Association of America.
The NAA recognizes that both the election and the economy are contributing toward this rise, but their stats show pretty similar reach during July, August and September, which is not what you'd expect if the trend were due mainly to current events. In the NAA's findings, the average unique visitor made eight or nine visits, however, so this is not seven-day readership. In fact, if you examine their stats closely, the NAA is saying that 41 percent of web users spend about 45 minutes a month, or an average of only 90 seconds per day, at newspaper sites. If you look at it that way, it's not much of an audience. In fact, the top half-dozen or so domain names all individually outpull the entire newspaper industry in unique visitors.

Still, there seem to be some optimists out there. Neither the revenue slide nor the circulation decline seem to bother Richard Siklos at Fortune in recommending a bet on printed newspapers.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Andreessen speaks

Imagine newspapers have never been invented. Here's the synopsis of a business plan for your consideration:
(a) head for Canada,
(b) cut down trees,
(c) feed said trees into one end of gigantic machine,
(d) take pulp paper from other end of machine,
(e) truck said paper to place of publication,
(f) feed paper into one end of another gigantic machine, which prints words and pictures on it,
(g) load printed paper into more trucks,
(h) deliver newspapers to front porches (behind screen door!), driveways and plastic tubes on metal posts beside roads in every godforsaken nook and cranny near said place of publication.

Likelihood of angel funding? Not too high. Likelihood that enterprises actually engaged in this crazy business today figure out that continuing this routine much longer is folly? About the same, apparently.

Marc Andreessen, well-known entrepreneur of the digital world, suggests in a Portfolio interview, responding to the question, "If you were running the New York Times, what would you do?":
Shut off the print edition right now. You’ve got to play offense. You’ve got to do what Intel did in ’85 when it was getting killed by the Japanese in memory chips, which was its dominant business. And it famously killed the business—shut it off and focused on its much smaller business, microprocessors, because that was going to be the market of the future. And the minute Intel got out of playing defense and into playing offense, its future was secure. The newspaper companies have to do exactly the same thing.

The financial markets have discounted forward to the terminal conclusion for newspapers, which is basically bankruptcy. So at this point, if you’re one of these major newspapers and you shut off the printing press, your stock price would probably go up, despite the fact that you would lose 90 percent of your revenue. Then you play offense. And guess what? You’re an internet company.
Now, realistically, he would not shut the printed Times down overnight. The important point here is that newspapers are not playing offense (although the Times comes pretty close), and they're not internet companies.

To be an internet business, a digital business, the a newspaper would have to decide, irrevocably, that it will now be focused totally on publishing online content and creating online communities, 24/7. No U.S. newspaper organization, including the Times, has truly done this—they continue to be organized around that evening deadline for the print product, and everything else is secondary. And their reporters and salespeople continue to carry business cards with the prominent name and logo of the printed paper, not that of their web site.

Importantly, getting out of the daily distribution of "ink on dead trees" does not preclude sweeping some of that digital content into print from time to time. The Christian Science Monitor will stop its daily paper, but will maintain a weekly magazine. Politico publishes a weekly newspaper circulated on Capitol Hill. Wisconsin's Capital Times eliminated its daily edition, but still publishes twice-weekly niche tabloids. The Onion is driven by its web business, but has a print edition with a circulation of 690,000.

Andreessen’s solution is radical, and he probably knows it’s not going to happen, not right now. But the Times and all other daily newspapers could, and should, consider the radical-enough solution of going digital by dropping everything except a profitable, ad- and feature-laden Sunday package (and probably switching that to Saturday publication). Cutting out six mostly break-even distribution days a week would be a lot smarter than cutting out 40 percent of their news staffs. (And, as Mark Potts suggests, and I agree, "Newspapers haven't even scratched the surface on potential online advertising revenue, and that's partly because they're still focused on print.")

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Now, in Living Color...

A while back I wrote several posts about e-paper (Esquire and E-paper, Kindle as a news delivery tool, the new Plastic Logic e-reader). All of these dealt with existing black-and-white screen technology.

Now, Freestyle Audio is first on the market with a device featuring a color e-paper screen manufactured by Qualcom. OK, it's pretty small, but so were the first commercial applications of black-and-white e-paper. Qualcomm's technology is reported to be able to change pixel colors rapidly enough to handle video. The right app for this is clearly an iPhone-sized screen, but if they can eventually scale this to page size, make it flexible, and build in WiFi, you'll be carrying around a piece of paper showing instant updates of your news feeds, including video. Sign me up.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Welcome to The Christian Science Blog

I just about fell off the couch when NPR's "Marketplace" mentioned this evening that the Christian Science Monitor plans to drop its print edition in April. It's not as if the New York Times or WaPo dropped that bombshell, but nevertheless, it's a turning point.

While it has a circulation of only about 50,000, the century-old Monitor, with a net loss of $18.9 million covered by subsidies from the Mother Church and an endowment fund, was able to maintain 9 foreign bureaus, 9 U.S. bureaus, and 100 news staffers. They can, perhaps, maintain all of that with a subsidy half as large by cutting out the print edition, with the exception of a printed weekly magazine. In their own words, the Monitor will be "the first newspaper with a national audience to shift from a daily print format to an online publication that is updated continuously each day."

In my second post on this blog, on September 20, I wrote:
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.
Scratch that last sentence. The Christian Science Monitor has seen the light. Congratulations. Who's next?

Monday, October 27, 2008


Sorry about the 5-day gap. Here are some random items not exactly about News after Newspapers, but certainly further indication that we may soon be in an After Newspapers world.

The "September FAS-FAX" numbers are out—that's the self-reported circulation figures of U.S. newspapers for the 6 months ending September 30, versus the same period a year ago. Guess what—they are down: 4.6% on weekdays and 4.8% on Sundays. The rationalization this time is that lots of papers are cutting out unprofitable—that is, not actually real—circulation. This includes gimmickry like Newspapers in Education, "third-party" promotions in which businesses pay for thousands of giveaway copies, "bonus days" in which papers are delivered on, say, Monday through Friday to people who only paid for Saturday-Sunday delivery, and on and on. Since all this nonsense has been going on for years, the current drop really represents years of real, core, paid circulation decline that's becoming visible all at once.

The industry claims that some of the decline represents readers switching to reading their content online, and that the overall audience is growing. But is it? ABC's list of the top 25 "tier 1" papers showing total audience growth (print plus online) is not that impressive—only 4 are in double digits, and below these 25 there must be a number in that "tier" with an overall decline. We can't tell, because the ABC has a membership firewall around the numbers.

Arthur Sulzberger admits that the New York Times might not be around forever. (And another report here.) Instead, says Pinch, "we must be where people want us to be for their information." I'm surprised this one didn't get more play, really—the publisher of the greatest newspaper in the world says, in effect, that he likes print but doesn't really care if it stays or goes. I have to say that of all American metros, the Times is really the most web-centric today, and stands a chance of making the post-print transition. Meanwhile, however, the Times reported a whopping 51 percent drop in earnings (but this beat Street estimates, somehow). At Gannett, the drop was only 32 percent.

Folks in New Jersey must still like the printed Times better than the bleeding Star Ledger, which is laying off 40 percent of its news staff. Forty percent! This is supposed to save the operation. Don't bet on it. Around the country, Paper Cuts has tallied over 12,000 newspaper layoffs and buyouts, and that's just the ones reported—lots of papers small and large leave jobs open or make small cuts without anyone writing about it.

If the audience is moving online, advertising is not following, at least not in the second quarter, when newspapers reported a 2.4 percent decline in online ad revenues. That's not much compared to the print slowdown, but it's not encouraging when newspapers have been pointing to the Web as representing their future. But in the third quarter, the newspaper web site audience grew 16 percent. One would think that ad revenues should resume their upward trend. I also read this week, and can't find the reference, that in September 41 percent of U.S. adults visited a newspaper web site, a new high. As newspapers disappear, however, we won't be talking about "newspaper web sites" anymore—just "news" sites.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Universalizing the copy desk

Turmoil in the generally placid waters of copyediting! Singleton lets drop that he might outsource their work to India! Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth! The American Copy Editors Society (ACES) responds (on front page of site, not permalinkable):
Sending copy editing overseas is a sure way to kill a paper's credibility. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not in one dramatic gesture, but every time that desk 9,000 miles away overlooks some nuance that local readers will spot, the newspaper's credibility dies a little. Oak Lawn, Oak Cliff, Oak Park, Oak Hill? What's the diff?

....And let's not even start on the tragicomic workflow disaster an overseas desk would cause. Just think of the last time you had to deal with an overseas customer service call center.
I'm sorry, but I happen to think the world’s offended copy editors are wrong for suggesting, in effect, that those dumb folks in India don’t know English well enough, and won't know their particular backyard, resulting in a ton of stupid mistakes.

The unions’ argument against Singleton (in their formal response) is plainly weak; it boils down to: There might be “errors a local person would have caught.” What else is new? There are plenty of errors already.

But beside that, if you look at the stories in any major Indian newspaper online, you won’t find scads of grammar errors, spelling errors, or stilted language. And for the most part, at the various regionalized copy desks already within MediaNews Group today, they don’t make mistakes about street names and such that are a couple of counties away, because Google has been invented (along with the telephone), to doublecheck those things. Distant copy desks can learn the local particulars pretty quickly and would obviously build themselves a reference manual as well. The California MNG papers are already doing ad production in India, apparently with no surge in errors, and the outfit Singleton probably has in mind, Mindworks, has been at this for a while very very successfully for a number of other major publications.

A better idea than all of this, however, is wiki-based journalism, which I seem to be posting about frequently (click "wikipedia" tag below this post). As part of this, stories could go online before getting excruciatingly edited, and would then go through several cycles of re-editing and annotation, Wikipedia-style, as envisioned by Japan's Information Architects. Copy editing in this model is universalized, as it is at Wikipedia.

Of course, copy editors won’t like that either, because it means that to some extent, Jane Public becomes your copy editor. But what's wrong with that? If Jane Public is already spotting mistakes (or “missed local nuances”) all over the paper today, while there are still copy editors warming American seats, why not let her just fix those mistakes, so reporters and editors can focus on chasing down the rest of the story? In fact, if enough Jacks and Janes out there can be engaged in the process of not only copy editing but researching, reporting and improving stories and news wiki topics, news content could be enormously enriched.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Valley Advocate does wiki, sort of

I picked up a copy of the Valley Advocate (that's the Pioneer, or Connecticut River, Valley in Massachusetts) the other day (something I do maybe three times a year), and noticed the front page headline: "Who's a WIKI: Help the Valley Advocate begin gathering data for the first Valley political wiki." Holy cow, I thought, they're starting a local wiki! They even express the hope that this will eventually be "a large and growing database of information about local people and issues in the news." Issues! Large and growing! A localpedia that's more than a directory of pizza joints and brew pubs!

No such luck, however. There's a two-page spread inside, with short bios of a bunch of politicians, and an introduction to the effect that they'd like readers to "fill in the gaps." So I go online and click on a pol I happen to know, Rep. John Olver. Can I edit what they've got? No. Can I add any information of my own? No. Can I do the wiki part of wikipedia? No. Well, actually, I can add a comment.

Sorry, Valley Advocate, that's not a local wiki. You want a local wiki? Use the open source software you can get from MediaWiki, or something similar, have every reporter, stringer and editor start contributing content, and open the gates to the public to add and edit. But, you were right about "local people and issues in the news"—the right way to build a localpedia is to base it around people and current issues, not restaurants and historic landmarks. (See multiple previous posts on this.)

I'll just have to keep looking for someone to kick this off right. Or do it myself.

Extra: Must-read of the day is "The Elite Newspaper of the Future" by Philip Meyer in AJR. He makes some excellent points about why the end-game is here and now for newspapers, and suggests they might survive in some way by focusing on the "leadership audience," a narrow subset of the broad audience they've always aimed for. Here's Meyer:
If they should peel back to some core function, newspapers would still have to worry about the Internet and its unbeatable capacity for narrowcasting. The newspapers that survive will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily, combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web....But it won't be a worthwhile possibility unless the news-paper endgame concentrates on retaining newspapers' core of trust and responsibility. The mass audience is drifting away, and resources should be focused on the leadership audience. If existing newspapers don't do it, new competitors will enter their markets and do it for them.
Indeed, they will.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Newspaper as Wiki, by Information Architects

Oliver Reichenstein heads up an outfit in Japan, with an outpost in Switzerland, called Information Architects (iA). Matt Gerber is iA's information designer. They've done a lot of innovative branding work, and a lot of innovative thinking about the future of news, and especially about "newspapers as wikis. " Their entire "about us" reads:
Brands are interfaces. Successful brands perform and evolve in a controlled, interactive process with their audience. Performance empowers the brand.

iA plans, builds, and manages interactive brands by continuously measuring and optimizing the performance of their user interfaces.

iA’s offices in Tokyo and Zürich serve clients from Japan, Germany and Switzerland.

Follow their thinking about news and newspapers in this sequence:

From March 2007, "The Future of News: How to Survive the New Media Shift," an endorsement of the wikipedia approach to news publishing (which I've endorsed, urged and elaborated on previously):

The making of a news article must become a public process. This will greatly increase the quality and the trust in published text. The integration of social media into the writing process is a greatest opportunity for writers and readers since the invention of the press; the more intelligent the readership of a newspaper the more intelligent the product will become.

Wikipedia proves that it works. The only question is: Which newspaper will allow their readers to participate in the writing an editorial process first. Participating means: You let them influence the article from the beginning to the end—and beyond. Future newspapers will allow their readers to influence the article before and after it is published. The only way to do this is by turning the newspaper web sites into transparent public editorial tools.
Also in March 2007, iA posted "10 Newspaper Myths Deconstructed," including:
Myth 10: Newspapers need to become social networks
Fact 10: Newspapers need to become Wikis

Newspaper readers are not friends. Good readers are supposed to be critical about each other and not pat each other’s backs. There is a much more obvious technological model for newspapers.

I believe that newspapers need to make the development of a story transparent, they need to cross link and cross reference articles, they need to allow users to write articles and collectively correct each other’s mistakes and they need to become at least as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Got it? Yes, newspapers should use Wiki technology. There is a lot to improve on the front end, but the content generation and optimization model is an almost perfect fit.

Then in April 2007, hinting that they had a customer interested in the wiki notion, they posted "Washington Post Redesign as a Wiki, " to answer questions beginning with "What does a newspaper as a wiki look like?" (The customer was not the Post.) Have a look at the graphics illustrating their thoughts.

Shortly thereafter appeared "Newspaper Wiki: Schematics," a Q&A on how iA sees the "newspaper as wiki" working. It includes a graphic illustrating a "wiki-based editing process,"

Finally, in June 2008, iA unveiled Newsnetz, which "joins the forces of major Swiss newspapers and a series of local Swiss papers to become the country’s leading news domain in terms of reach, traffic, editorial size, and production." With Newsnetz, they've put into practice their development of the "newspaper as a wiki." Again, look at the post for extensive graphics showing the sites before and after, and how the design was done. The sites themselves are now live, they're Tages Anzeiger, Berner Zeitung, and BazOnline. (Keep in mind that at this point, I believe the wikification is behind the scenes in the content management system, and apparently has not yet reached the stage where readers can join the process. But perhaps a reader of German can explore those sites better than me and explain how the reader might interface with them, wiki-like.)

There's a lot more to digest at iA, including many comments from visitors and responses from iA to the comments. Well worth spending some time with.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Election 2008 at Twitter

A while back I wrote about Twitter and mentioned my feeling that its potential journalistic value was not so much in a flow of individual messages from a single reporter as in the way that a "constant flow of messages from a posse of reporters, bloggers and even rank-and-file attendees at an event [can create] a sense of the ambient flow and mood of the gathering." This could be sports events, conventions, conferences, even riots. This can happen with live public access, or off the record record to keep everyone in touch in a group such as a newsroom, a team of salespeople or the like.

It's not really journalism (OK, it's not journalism at all), but some sense of ambient awareness can be derived from looking at Twitter's selective feeds on current topics, such as Joe the Plumber, ACORN, or Colin Powell. But you can get a really intense sense of Twitter's potential s at their Election 2008 center, unveiled at the end of September, where the tweets just keep on flowing in what's essentially a national conversation about politics. (Make sure you keep that Pause button unpaused to keep them coming; it seems to be triggered by mere cursor movement.)

For political junkies, this is pretty cool, but again, imagine this kind of flow from a convention or sports event audience. Or during a World Series Game. Or on how the stock market's doing. It appears to be the only such streaming topic on Twitter right now, but I'm guessing we'll see a lot more of this. See also ohguido's thoughts on all this at Masters of Media. The lingo is a tad stilted (it's a Dutch group blog by master's students at the University of Amsterdam), but I think he's on the right wavelength with regard to Twitter.

Incidentally, the other day Dave Lee at daveleejblog posted "How should we be using Twitter." He mentions only individual Twitter streams such as that of Jemima Kiss, who is a very savvy British blogger, now at the Guardian (sorry, she's apparently on vacation, so check back in a while); and "organisation" feeds such as the BBC's, which seems to be just an automated feed of stories as they go live. No mention of group twittering to create ambient awareness. (And yes, that term I'm using is from Clive Thompson's New York Times Magazine piece.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Another vote for a Wiki

Chris O'Brien of NextNewsroom has "start a wiki" at the top of his list of suggestions for reinventing newsrooms. Except he says, "Along with news, information is an important service a newspaper provides to its community." No, news is information, and it belongs in that wiki too, as previously suggested here (and here again) and being developed by Matt Thompson. Overall, though, Chris has good suggestions, and at least he's thinking about wikification. The Duke Wiki he mentions is pretty good, but on its breaking news page, we find "There is no breaking news on campus at the moment." Like hell there isn't.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hyperlocal: it's about content, not technology

Along with "citizen journalism" (previously) comes "hyperlocal," a term referring to coverage of news so local it tends to be below the radar of most media. Hyperlocal news and information is very place-specific (perhaps geo-tagged to enhance location-based searches), and it includes a huge, almost unlimited, potential amount of information—think of expansive reportage (rather than just highlights) of town council and commission meetings, play-by-plays of Little League games, street repairs, police, fire and ambulance logs, and much more.

Some newspaper groups have taken up the term to encourage their editors to move toward more hyperlocal content. In small markets, that means "doing more of what we've always done, and what we know best" in metro markets, it means carving the market up into neighborhoods and making news accessible on that level. And in many cases, it means trying to bring the "citizen journalists" or "citizen bloggers" into a gee-whiz high-tech platform, with seriously mixed results. Here's a little survey of attempts, large and small:

The Dallas Morning News operates neighborsgo, a site that purports to cover a slew of separate neighborhoods (listed in the search pulldown). Strangely, there's no Morning News branding on the site. The top story of the moment seems to be about elementary school students who collect boxtops for some unspecified reason (although a moment later upon revisiting, I can't locate it anymore; the site's navigation is mighty perplexing for a geezer like me). For all of Dallas, today there are only 9 new news items. Pick a random neighborhood, and the top story is probably days old. Looks like a failed experiment, to me.

The Washington Post has tried this with LoudonExtra, a flashy site launched over the summer and immediately critiqued in the Wall Street Journal (see quotes and further commentary by Jon Talton). The Post is still trying, but as Jon says, "The geeks hired by the Post had not a clue about Loudoun." And further:
The failure has been the business model, not real journalism. Technology can enhance news coverage; it can't substitute for serious reporting and great writing. Yet year after year, publishers did a beat-down on newsrooms to fix a problem outside their control. They did nothing to market their products or recruit the world-class talent to fix the ad meltdown. Such is the consequence of an industry that had created monopolies and thought the confiscatory ad-rate cash would never stop flooding in the door.
The tech-heavy business model of some of these attempts also explains the rather spectacular failure of Visit the URL today and you'll encounter some kind of directory enterprise in the making. But the original idea, backed by around $3 million in venture capital, was to be a network of city-centered sites with citizen journalists gathering and posting news, and local salespeople generating ad revenue. A review of the operation posted in 2005 points to some of the problems even then apparent: "Something feels very incomplete about the experience of using it: I have to believe there’s more to Reston, McLean and Bethesda than what the sites suggest is there to be filled in." After the demise, co-founder and "recovering journalist" Mark Potts posted a detailed list of lessons learned, including:
Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It's not about technology, it's not about journalism, it's not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It's about bringing community members together to share what they know about what's going on around town. A top-down, "if you build it, they will come" strategy absolutely does not work, and that's not what Backfence did—otherwise, we'd have launched in a lot more than 13 communities in two years.
I would argue that for this very reason, it's actually impossible to build a nationally branded network of hyperlocal sites. Unless, perhaps, you've got $3 billion, not $3 million, to play with.

So let's look at a few really local sites—not created in some desperation by metro market papers, not VC-funded attempts to launch a national hyperlocal franchise.

One that gets a fair share of attention ("#1 placeblog in America," for instance) and has been around for a while is Baristanet, covering Montclair, N. J. and environs. My opinion: very clean, very professional in its coverage, looks healthy, adwise (although no clue as to profitability).

Near the other end of the spectrum, in my book, is iBrattleboro, of Brattleboro, Vermont—also once hyped as a good model for citizen journalism, but unfortunately it has fallen into a rut. There have been no site improvements in a long while; most of the posts and discussion seem to be the same folks talking to each other; there's no real focus and no comprehensive coverage. The site's laudable idea of a local wiki has become mostly a local history resource and hasn't reached its potential.

Then there's Village Soup, covering a stretch of the Maine coast. Founder Richard Anderson has toiled for about 10 years building this operation, investing millions of his own dollars, launching several weekly print newspapers to help it compete against a slew of other daily, weekly and niche publications in the area. This year he bought out his struggling weekly competitors, and with the help of a Knight Foundation Newschallenge grant, is having his content management system rewritten as open-source software, with the hope that Village Soups will start simmering in many other locations. Village Soup demonstrates that when it comes to hyperlocal, there are no easy solutions—but their success shows that web-centered local journalism can work where traditional print-centered media were failing. Technology is an important component at Village Soup, but the focus is rightly on content. I'll be looking further, in upcoming posts, at local news enterprises of this kind.

By the way:
If anyone still needs convincing that print newspapers will lose the race to online, read David Weir's BNet piece "The Tipping Point Toward New Media:"

In almost every article you’ll read on the topic, it’s noted that newspapers still collect more ad revenue than do digital media. AdAge estimates that in 2008 newspaper ad revenue will drop 7.7% to $41.9 billion, while internet and mobile ad revenue will grow 20.9% to $26.6 billion, based on forecasts by Price Waterhouse Coopers. It is worth noting that if these trends continue, digital ad revenue will pass newspapers before the end of 2010.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Aux armes, citoyens!

Citizen journalism. Sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn't it, sort of like citizen soldiers—which originally meant citizens who armed themselves and formed militias to rid themselves of tyrants like George III (who had stationed an army of non-citizen soldiers among them). So, with citizen journalists, we can rid ourselves of the yoke of oppression imposed by media barons and non-citizen journalists, right?

Well, first, let's define what's meant by citizen journalism. To me a citizen journalist is anyone who, unencumbered by professional journalism training or experience, reports news (as text, photo, audio or video, and including fact-checkers and others focused on reporting facts).

To some, citizen journalism seems to be more or less synonymous with blogging, which it is not. Blogging covers a wide spectrum that includes "citizens" practicing "journalism" or publishing "news," but it also covers news aggregators just posting links, folks like me posting opinions, and lots of people posting online what they used to put in a private journal, corporations blogging to market their stuff, politicians selling themselves, communities like Metafilter, and special-interest blogs on a myriad of topics.

At the same time, the term "citizen journalism" includes not only non-professional reporters covering news, but also non-professional aggregators like Drudge, collaborative news sites like Slashdot, and the kind of bloggers who fact-check and occasionally trip up politicians and mainstream media.

So, some bloggers are citizen journalists, and some citizen journalists are bloggers, but the two circles are more distinct than overlapping.

I'm agnostic on whether citizen journalism is legitimate journalism. As conveyed in the first paragraph of this post, the term itself seems a little pretentious to me, and in the few convocations of citizen journalists I've attended, there really does seem to be a perception that the oppressors of mainstream media are in cahoots with the ruling class and need to be overthrown.

The citizen journalists I've met are mostly deaf to any suggestion that most professional journalists toiling in the mainstream are serious, committed and ethical, and that even some of the owners are motivated at least in part by ideals rather than money. And they tend to have an agenda, often expressed as "democracy," but tending to be strongly left-leaning—not that there's anything wrong with left-leaning, I lean that way myself. But I prefer my journalists straight up, not leaning.

I like (here's another oldie but goodie) Doug McGill's 2006 essay entitled "What I've Learned Teaching Citizen Journalists." Those lessons in brief are (you can follow the link for further exposition), quote:
1. Citizens are an untapped source of expertise and positive civic energy that journalists can help unlock.
2. There is no substitute for a strong, independent, institutional journalism.
3. Citizens can help journalists reconnect to the wellsprings of their craft.
4. Journalists need to learn citizenship skills, as much as citizens need to learn journalism.
5. A good citizen journalism class, like a great newspaper, allows for all types of expression -- artistic, poetic, literary, photographic, musical, comical and fun.
6. Citizens create vital community consciousness through the discipline of writing journalistically.
7. I'm the one who needs to change.
Meaning by that last one, that the pros need to loosen up, there's much to be learned from the involvement of citizens in the news process. And of course, since McGill derived these thoughts from teaching citizen journalism, it follows that his pupils were already at least one step on the road to becoming pros, rather than "citizens." But it doesn't seem like, at that time, McGill was ready to turn the store over to them; rather, citizen journalists, with some training, can nicely augment what he calls "institutional" journalists in a news organization.

Now, much has happened since that was written, so, up next (maybe tomorrow), I'm going to continue the citizen journalism theme by having a look at the "hyperlocal" trend, and ask whether, and how, citizen journalism can contribute to hyperlocal news ventures. And, I'm scouting around to see whether this has been done with any notable success.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Let the professionals handle it?

Do we still need professional journalists? Or can "citizen journalists" do a better job?

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, in a column entitled "Why Journalism Wins My Vote," comes down on the side of professionals, while drawing a series of interesting contrasts between the U.S. and British styles of journalism:
In the new world of citizen journalism, the role of the trained journalist as trusted intermediary no longer holds. Some may argue that this privileged status was always precarious, even a fiction. Perhaps there is no such thing as a neutral filter or objective truth, and (print) journalists were imposters to suggest as much.

Yet to abandon the quest to write the first draft of history carries risks. There will always be powerful forces seeking to suppress injustice or inconvenient truths. For all their failings, newspapers, especially the well-financed family-owned newspapers, have served as a counterweight. On both sides of the Atlantic, the line between news reporting and comment is becoming increasingly blurred. That is something that should give everyone in the profession pause for thought.

Barber also suggests (after opining that "It would be premature to suggest US newspapers are engaged in a last roll of the dice") the kind of opportunity that exists for the American news business to re-invent and re-invigorate itself:

There are plenty of opportunities for growth, starting with a renewed focus on local news; a more sophisticated blend of online and print content; and a more adventurous approach to what readers and viewers want, particularly younger ones.

Unfortunately, American newspaper companies are paying lip service to this formula, but they're not wholeheartedly embracing it. Layoffs and buyouts everywhere ("11,683+") run completely counter to "a renewed focus on local news;" nearly all newspapers still operate on a production cycle aimed at the next printing deadline, rather than "a sophisticated blend of online and print" where online comes first; and for a "more adventurous approach," you need to go to The Huffington Post, not a daily newspaper site.

But we digress. Barber's preference for professional journalism is laid out largely in contrast to bloggers, whom he equates at one point with "citizen journalists." There's probably no clear distinction, really, between the pros, the bloggers, and citizen journalists—on that spectrum you can find professionals who blog, bloggers who report, and even citizens who do a professional job of covering events. I'll revisit that question in the next couple of days with a look specifically at the notion of "citizen journalists" and how they might, or might not, contribute to professional news organizations.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Basic Unit of News is:

Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine argues that "the new building block" of news is the topic:
I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something (an extension of an article like this one that asks what options there are to bailout a bailout). It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.

Think of it as being inside a beat reporter’s head, while also sitting at a table with all the experts who inform that reporter, as everyone there can hear and answer questions asked from the rest of the room — and in front of them all are links to more and ever-better information and understanding.

This is the way to cover stories and life.

It’ s not an article, a story, a section, a bureau, a paper, a show. We have to use the new tools we have at hand to create new structures for covering news and informing each other.
Note that this supports Matt Thompson's notion of wikifying the news, which I've quoted, described and commented on in several posts, see archive.

But I must call attention, again, also, to the (ancient, 2006) view of Adrian Holovaty:
But the goal for me, a data person focused more on the long term, is to store information in the most valuable format possible. The problem is particularly frustrating to explain because it's not necessarily obvious; if you store everything on your Web site as a news article, the Web site is not necessarily hard to use. Rather, it's a problem of lost opportunity. If all of your information is stored in the same "news article" bucket, you can't easily pull out just the crimes and plot them on a map of the city. You can't easily grab the events to create an event calendar. You end up settling on the least common denominator: a Web site that knows how to display one type of content, a big blob of text. That Web site cannot do the cool things that readers are beginning to expect.
Holovaty doesn't come right out and say it, but he's arguing in the direction of smaller units of news than the story; in other words, that individual facts are the basic units. We may be arguing semantics here, but when Jarvis and Thompson suggest that the topic, rather than the story, is now the basic unit of news, they're saying that news would be best presented and comprehended online if built into topic threads, rather than story "blobs". That's true enough, but that doesn't make the topic the "building block," because that suggests there's nothing smaller than the topic.

In my view the fact needs to be the building block or basic unit. Content management and publishing systems need to find ways of storing, handling, manipulating, sorting, searching for, analyzing collections of, presenting mashups of, and making comprehensible facts and collections of facts. Many typical news stories contain only one or two or three new facts, laced into 25 paragraphs of background rehash and quoted commentary. And news organizations will no doubt continue to publish those stories. But at the same time, there needs to be a way to file those few new facts in such a way that they're added to all the topic threads they're relevant to, they're made available to anyone with keyword update subscriptions, they're added to any relevant maps, tables, dynamic analyses, calendars of events, and the like. And let facts have individual URL addresses just as stories do now.

Let's get away from"building blocks" (which conjures up a city of immutable structures), and conceive of news as composed of more granular units: facts that are databased in such a way that they are easily, often automatically, repurposed into many possible presentation formats.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Twelve-string News

So the Knight Foundation gave Adrian Holovaty $1.1 million to create Everyblock (which answers the question "what is happening around me," block by block in various cities, and now the scuttlebutt is that Google wants to buy up Adrian. But he says it ain't so.

So we can relax, and see what the hubbub is about. Back in 2006, Adrian posted on his blog a pretty good summary of what it is that newspaper sites ought to fix—notice that even then, he didn't care about newspapers, just newspaper sites—using the words "newspapers need to stop the story-centric worldview." Read the last few grafs. What he's getting at is that content management systems (which haven't changed much since then) are story-centric, and that what would be better is a more granular method of databasing news information so it can be "sliced and diced" into such things as crime maps by block, and pulling information from the weather database to enhance the presentation of Little League information.

This would seem to have some implications for Matt Thompson's idea of Wikipedianizing the news, since that implies even longer stories that are group-edited, with breaking news showing up as the incremental change log. As of yet, there's no good way to manipulate Wikipedia information in database fashion, but maybe if Matt and Adrian put their heads together, it could be done.

As for Everyblock: it's pretty granular, all right, but even if I lived on, say, West 73rd Street, I'm not sure I'd find it all that useful, compared to whatever was plastered on the window of the deli down the block. It takes news aggregation down to the block level, for cosmopolitanites who live in big cities and certainly don't mind taking a subway ride across town to catch a poetry reading, gallery opening, or what have you. That doesn't mean granularity is on the wrong track, but Everyblock might be.

In any event, even if you don't agree with everything Holovaty thinks, he sure strums a mean guitar. Check out his YouTube channel. Play more than one of them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

InfoValet, at your service

Continuing from yesterday's introduction to Bill Densmore...

Bill is now at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, as one of their Reynolds Fellows, developing his Information Valet Project. For the full scoop on his project, follow his blog on the subject, and see the original proposal, (which is linked from his July 17 post, no separate URL available). The InfoValet (my shorthand) is described as follows:
A service network of “information valets” will replace the old physical product-oriented music, publishing and entertainment industries, replacing many CDs, newspapers, DVDs, perhaps even books. These valets will compete across geographic and topical spheres with search, advice, community, research, linking, hosting, data storage and other services. They will compete to be best at meeting the consumer’s diverse information needs within communities defined by individual users. Information resources will not typically be owned by the valet. Rather, the valet will be compensated for finding, shaping and referring them to the consumer, much as a retailer aggregates and merchandises for wholesalers.
What I'm interested in is the "finding, shaping and referring" part, which would seem to have implications for the news business. I'm still not sure if what Bill is trying to develop is simply an information commerce network, or an information commerce network that has some aspects of the Intelligent Interface Agents I referenced on Sept. 24, long envisioned but still unrealized "knowbots" that can take the drudgery out of surfing the Net.

Michal Migurski of Stamen, commenting on that post of mine, says, in effect: "Forget it, just use RSS feeds that reflect various largely human-edited aggregators; this is not going to be done by software agents." But I'm not convinced, and I hope Bill will build the idea into InfoValet -- after all, if your valet can't figure out your needs, what good is it? And indeed, Bill's proposal continues with this vision of the news organization of the future:
The next news organization is not principally a newspaper — centralized daily printing is going to become a niche product for the wealthy and depends on non-renewable resources and expensive manufacturing. Rather, it is a 24/7, platform-agnostic nerve center that finds, organizes, shares and makes sense of information from a vast array of paid, volunteer, independent and partisan sources — and then serves it how you want it, when you want it.

It will be a service organization — like a law or accounting firm — and it will be paid accordingly. At first, it will be extremely difficult to convince people to pay for such a service. But as the years go by, it will be seen as an absolutely indispensable way to get through the day. People will become as reliant on their "Newshare" as on their car, doctor, parent or colleague. Larger cities will have multiple "new shares" offering competing information valet services.

They will compete largely on technical grounds — which sorts best, who finds the real gems, and who provides premium information at the right price bundle? Advertising will be part of all this, but it will be an option—if you are willing to receive advertising, the cost of your "Newshare" will be less.

The competition for mass-audience advertising on the web is such that it seems hard to imagine sustainable rates will ever support the amount of original reporting the United States has enjoyed for the last 50 years. Audiences are now atomizing and the only future for advertising is in presenting targeted messages to individual users. This means the entity that earns the right to receive value for advertising is going to be the one which does the best job of understanding and then servicing the needs of an individual user — including privacy. In the informationservice economy, you[r] information valet will be paid for arranging your attention when you look at an ad, and that payment will be a credit to an account, will offset your purchase of premium
information. This represents an ebb and flow of attention and info-currency, depending upon whether it is information someone wants you to have or information you want.
I'll buy the idea that with certain obvious safeguards against manipulating the system, consumers might share in the advertising revenue targeted at them. But I disagree with the idea that consumers will get over their enormous resistance to paying for online news content, and be willing to pay in some fashion as they once did for print. If the InfoValet system materializes, and I use it to shop online for music, video, games, software, anything downloadable—then the service itself needs to be free. And news, since it's already 99 percent free online, should remain on the free side of the package.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Carry On, Jeeves

As promised, a look at Bill Densmore's Information Valet Project (IVP).

Bill's on a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, developing the ideas he presented in his proposal entitled "Building the Information Valet Economy." (And as it happens, he is the cubicle neighbor of Matt Thompson, whose ideas for "Wikipedia-ing the News" have been the subject of a couple of previous posts of mine: 1 2. This being apparently fertile ground, I may go explore what the rest of those Fellows are up to.)

Today, as background, I'm going to restrict myself to introducing Bill and attempting to explain the origins of his thinking. Tomorrow, we'll get into the IVP itself. Bill is a longtime friend and colleague of mine, going back to pre-Internet days. After he sold a Berkshires (Mass.) weekly called The Advocate, he spent a number of years nursing a firm called Clickshare through its development stages. The basic idea of Clickshare was (and is):
Clickshare allows a consumer to have one account at a most-trusted website and buy from other websites without having to pass around a credit-card number, register or give out personal information. One ID, one account, one bill.
This assumed consumers would wish to buy, from many web sites, small amounts of information (news), and pay for it in very small increments charged to their Clickshare account. Sounds simple enough, but then it got complicated in ways that I confess I never fully understood, including ways for consumers to earn small payments for viewing website advertising, and for sites to earn a share of the microcharges incurred by consumers originally signed to Clickshare accounts via their sites. As far as I know, the payments network aspect never got fully off the ground, and the system is used primarily to process things like subscription payments for individual sites.

But Bill was certainly prescient when he wrote, a number of years ago, these further words explaining the system:
"It was my thought that newspapers were facing a business train wreck in the new century if they didn't learn how to become digital infomediaries for their readers and customers," says Densmore. "The Internet provides the perfect solution in terms of universal access to digital goods. But what was missing was a mechanism for independent publishers to share their customers without losing them, and to profitably share each other's content with those customers.

"We conceived Clickshare as a solution the problem. But the Clickshare Customer Exchange Platform (TM) has evolved really to be the digital-content operating system for the new century and is broadly applicable to words, music, video, multimedia, software and services such as loyalty marketing, affinity groups and site access control.

"What's so unique? In the past, words, music, movies and software had to be packaged in newspapers, books, tapes and disks before they could be distributed. Their form and context had to be fixed. With the Internet, digital content can be stored in pieces on a content-owner's server and assembled 'just-in-time' in a myriad of customized packages for individual consumers. No content owner can foresee all the ways to package the pieces.

"With distribution now a commodity, agents with millions of users are now in a position to serve as retailers, adding value to content by finding it and sorting it in new ways, then acquiring it from content owners at wholesale "just-in-time" to instantly turn around and resell it to users. Clickshare Service Corp. is the first company to identify this new approach to content selling, and to develop a proprietary service which enables it."
In other words, when Clickshare was launched, "digital information" available online consisted mainly of words. But today, beyond words in news stories, a consumer might purchase music at iTunes, video via Blockbuster or Netflix, books from Amazon, or games or software from various sources, all with different payment methodology. As a customer your private information goes wherever you might shop online. Clickshare's system (aspects of which are patented) protects the customer's privacy, but more importantly (and as distinct from the likes of Paypal), it seeks to create a Consumer Commerce Network in which information vendors benefit from all future purchases made by consumers initially registered at their site.

In any event, Clickshare is still waiting for its day, perhaps largely because the vast majority of news sites have elected not to charge for most, or any, of their content. And Bill's at Mizzou, serving up the Information Valet, about which more tomorrow.