Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Interview: Charles Sennott, executive editor of GlobalPost

charles_sennottCharles M. Sennott is executive editor and vice president of GlobalPost, an international news platform based in Boston. I spoke with Sennott on March 24, 2009 and attended the morning editorial meeting following our discussion.

Charles M. Sennott was a veteran of 25 years of journalism including nine years of international reporting with the Boston Globe when he took a mid-career break as a Nieman Fellow in 2005. Shortly after he returned to the Globe, the paper announced that it would be shutting down all of its foreign bureaus and would rely on other sources for international coverage. His hope, or “five-year plan,” had been that his career would evolve into doing special projects, and possibly becoming the Globe’s foreign editor. He dreamed of doing a stint in Beijing, but the paper’s retrenchment eliminated all of those horizons.

globalpostOn one of his final foreign assignments, linked to the five-year anniversary of 9/11, he traveled to Afghanistan. He roamed the country with Gary Knight, a photojournalist who had founded the photo agency VII, which is particularly strong in gathering and marketing “premier conflict photography.” Knight asked him why foreign correspondents didn’t have a similar organization. This “push” led Sennott to hatch the idea of forming an independent, not-for-profit agency of top foreign correspondents who would do grant-funded projects and distribute the resulting content to publishers.

He developed a business plan around this idea and went shopping for financing, applying to the Knight News Challenge program and the Carnegie Foundation, and approaching several private philanthropists. While failing to gain funding commitments, he did receive strong encouragement, including from Knight, to continue his quest.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A giant digital copier: individuated news, Océ-style

I pointed out a few weeks ago with some puzzlement the plans for “individuated news” announced by MediaNews Group. Because that scheme involves requiring readers print their own newspapers on special printers to be supplied by the publisher, the idea seemed to me and many others to be a non-starter.

But there’s another way: Dutch document management firm Océ has unveiled a new digital web press, the JetStream 2800, capable of printing full color, individually customizable, 600 dpi newspapers at a web speed of 130 meters per minute.

A narrower-web version of the same press, the 2200, is being set up at Imcodávila, a newspaper contract printer in Spain, with a planned May start date. The basic idea is to couple this machine with a standard offset press, using the Océ to feed a micro-zoned or even “individuated” web into the mix.

This system is one of those “holy grail” ideas that has been talked about for decades — I recall mention early in my newspaper career (that would be late 1970s) — to the effect that one day, the press would be “a giant Xerox machine” that could be heavy on sports for one reader, and heavy on financial news for the next-door neighbor.

Read the rest of this post at Nieman Journalism Lab

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thinking the thinkable: Dan Conover's vision for the future of journalism

So you’ve read Clay Shirky’s widely-linked “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” and you know why the unthinkable is nigh, but Shirky has no answer (italics added):

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs? I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

But the revolutionaries do have some pretty good ideas, which Shirky doesn’t explore. But Dan Conover at Xark! does, it a masterful post called “2020 vision: What’s next for news.”

Conover starts by pointing out that at the moment, the existence of struggling and dying newspapers in most cities is serving to inhibit the emergence of new models for journalistic enterprises. Therefore, Conover says, “the first meaningful test won’t come until a major American city loses its only metro daily.” He suggests that the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as small-town dailies with circulations under 30,000, will be OK for now, but that the “hybrid beast known as the metro daily is in trouble, and most will not survive past 2010 in their traditional configurations.”

So in the short term, Conover envisions frequency reductions down to one to three times per week, single-digit profit margins becoming the norm as monopolies die, the elimination of duplicate coverage among media outlets in individual markets, and the disaggregation of the business as printing and distribution, or even newsgathering, are outsourced.

These are assumptions most of us have made, but Conover’s vision extends what will shape journalism beyond the short term. Like Shirky, he says “nobody knows what that shape will be”, but he offers dozens of ideas on what the components will be. It would not be fair to summarize; you just have to go read it, but I’ll tell you what I liked particularly:

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Conducting journalists: The Cedar Rapids Gazette in startup mode


Back in December, at my old blog, I posted a set of media predictions for 2009, including: “Some innovative new approaches to journalism will emanate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”

Around that time came the unveiling of Newsmixer, a project by Medill School of Journalism students working in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Newsmixer, which has not progressed beyond a demonstration stage, is a concept for social networking around news, something the industry urgently needs to develop.

But Newsmixer came out in 2008, so it doesn’t count to fulfill my 2009 prediction. This does:

The Gazette’s Steve Buttry last week announced bold changes in the organization of the Gazette newsroom. Buttry was editor of the paper, but that role has passed to Lyle Muller, and Buttry has assumed a newly coined title: Information Content Conductor. I’m sure he’s the only guy in the country with that title right now.

The change is part of a broad and ongoing functional reorganization being led by Gazette Communications CEO Chuck Peters. Chuck, you may recall, achieved some blogospheric fame last fall by liveblogging the American Press Institute’s Summit for an Industry in Crisis. Unlike most news executives, his previous experience includes leadership of a completely different business — he was president and COO of Amana Refrigeration, the kitchen appliance firm. He also has a law degree. His background is a key reason Gazette Communications (which includes TV broadcasting and commercial printing divisions) is coming up with innovative new strategies for dealing with the challenges printed newspapers face...

Read the rest of this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An imaginary conversation about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer


As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s fate continues to hang in the balance, Steven Swartz (CEO of P-I owner Hearst) and Lincoln Millstein (Hearst’s Senior VP-Digital) have lunch:

Millstein: Steve, we need to make up our minds about the P-I. The 60-day clock we put them on stopped three days ago.

Swartz: Yes, I’m sorry — I’ve been tied up dealing with the Chron, shuffling management, getting that e-reader going, and whatnot. But you’re right, let’s figure it out. I’m running out of time in my “100 days of change,” also. What’s your thinking?

Millstein: I’m thinking we go with an online-only P-I. We’re going to end up facing that choice in other markets, including San Francisco, and Seattle gives us the opportunity to test the model and find out what works and what doesn’t.

Swartz: But can we make money? We’ve been losing more than $1 million a month there — $14 million last year. I’m not interested in an experiment to see if an online-only brand can stand up against a print/only combo — I’m interested in making money. In the immortal words of Jack Welch: “fix it, sell it, or close it.” There’s no buyer in sight, so we’re down to fixing or closing.

Millstein: I say we fix it. We’ve got the numbers down to breakeven. That’s doing pretty well, in this economy. We can build profitability going forward. We’ve got a staffing plan: with just a few dozen content people we’ll have an operation that can cover Seattle well enough. We need to hire a sales and marketing staff, some tech people, some admin types, but overall we’ve cut that $ 14 million loss down to total expenses of $5 million. We can sell ads to cover that — the site is leading the market in unique visitors and pageviews.

Swartz: OK, but just to cover $5 million in cost, you need $100,000 a week in ads, and as I said, breaking even is not good enough — this is still a business. The right number would be $250,000 a week, or more. $13 million a year in revenue.

Continue reading this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thinking outside the box: Big pictures! Weight Club! Poetry!


Here is a great post from last month that, judging by the paucity of comments and trackbacks, has gotten very little attention: it’s called “10 Steps to Save the Newspaper,” and it’s by Morten Rand-Hendriksen of Burnaby, British Columbia on his blog, Design Is Philos0phy. As a matter of fact, everything on his blog (including the design of it) is terrific, but we journobloggers don’t seem to have discovered it yet.

So do me a favor. Subscribe to his blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Now, about his ten steps to save the newspaper: visit his blog to read all ten recommendations, but let me excerpt the ones I like particularly.

Predictably, like Juan Antonio Giner, Mario Garcia and Alan Jacobson, Rand-Hendriksen is a design evangelist — big, bold design. “The internet is a visual medium. So use it.”

One of the many great things about the internet is that real-estate is no longer a problem. Want to post a 6,000 word article on penguins with frostbite? Go ahead. Have a humongous graphic or image you want to show in all it’s splendor and detail? Just place it as a thumbnail in your page and link to the full size version.In short, when moving from print to online as your publishing medium your options in terms of visual content become limitless. So exploit it.

He points to some news sites following what he calls the Massive Image Overload strategy. See, for example, Aftenposten in Norway, and click through to any major story. It makes you wonder why the Boston Globe doesn’t integrate The Big Picture (recently moved from here) into its main news pages. When you compare the Globe, Times, Washington post or almost any North American newspaper site with almost any European one, it comes across pretty tame. Massive Image Overload could be a reader option, even, like Times Extra.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Back to the future: MediaNews revives "print your own newspaper"


In an approach rather different from Microsoft’s vision of content delivery in the future, which I described yesterday, MediaNews Group has announced plans for I-News, a system that will print your own customized newspaper on your own printer:

The “individuated” stories selected by each reader are sent to a special printer being developed for MediaNews that each customer would have at home.The printer will format the stories and print them or send them to a computer or mobile phone for viewing later in the day.

Ads will be delivered as well. Where possible, the ads will be matched to each reader’s choice of stories. For example, a reader who selects high school sports stories might receive ads from retail sports stores, or skiers might receive ski-related ads.

Moreover, MediaNews suggests, once this notion takes hold, the company might only have to print and deliver actual newspapers three days a week:

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Microsoft's vision: Ubiquitous display technology

This video released by Microsoft a few days ago, which has collected quite a few links, is worth viewing as a vision for news delivery in the future.

It shows the possibilities for very thin, very portable, color e-paper (or other display technology) touch-screen devices for use in many applications including news consumption. Watch for a glimpse of a foldable electronic newspaper.

For a full 5-minute version, with an expanded version of the e-newspaper scenario at 4:10, have a look here (scroll down to the second video.)

Of course, it’s all vaporware and some of this is stuff that definitely falls into the futureporn category. (Where’s my flying car? Where’s my personal robot and vacation on Mars?) But note that often, the future visions of 20 years ago actually fall far short of where we’ve traveled to.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hearst's 100 days: on the right track, or misguided?

Steven R. Swartz, appointed president of Hearst’s newspaper division in December, sent around a memo last week reporting to his troops on the “100 days of change” he launched not long after taking the job, the midpoint of which had come around.

Predictably, the memo got leaked and was published by the Wall Street Journal (scroll down). And predictably as well, Jeff Jarvis deconstructs it, line by line, as “too little, too late”:

…a memo that could and should have been written and tried out 12 years ago (I’m sure people in this company and others did write versions of it; I know I did). If these actions had been taken back then, there still would have been time to make change and survive. But that time is over. Now the memo comes off only as desperation as the company threatens to close its papers in San Francisco — its onetime center of gravity— and Seattle.

Give a guy a break, already. It’s not hard for us journobloggers to pounce all over the industry’s hapless execs. I’ve done it myself, back in November when the clueless gathered at API to deal with “an industry in crisis” and decided that meeting again in six months would be a really good idea. (To their credit, they met again after just two months.)

But Swartz is not waiting for six months, he’s trying to reinvent a company in 100 days. Surely he knows that history is against him — as I suggested the other day, newspapers are in the same desperate straights passenger railroads were throughout the 1950s and 60s, and it’s a truly rare thing for a legacy business to survive disruptive innovation of the kind newspapers face. But as the lone onetime corporate hack in this stable of bloggers, I have to suggest that perhaps Swartz is breaking the mold and actually trying to change the business model. We (bloggers) can’t forever beat up on newspapers for their cluelessness and then pounce all over a guy who is at least getting some of it right, and might actually know what he’s doing.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.