Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Circlabs: a new entry in the options for sustaining journalism

Full disclosure right up front: I’m one of the partners launching the venture described herein.

This morning in Washington, D.C., Jeff Vander Clute and I announced the formation of CircLabs, a technology company based in Silicon Valley that’s building a new service to finance online news. CircLabs has seed funding from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

The announcement was part of a one-day conference entitled “From Gatekeeper to Information Valet: Work Plans for Sustaining Journalism,” organized by Bill Densmore, another partner in the project along with Joe Bergeron, a Silicon Valley software engineer.

CircLabs plans a suite of services, the first of which is code-named “Circulate.” Software development on Circulate is underway, and we anticipate launching the service during the second half of this year.

Circulate will address the challenges of how to increase traffic to media-affiliated websites, secure relationships with online users and enhance the value of news. The Associated Press has been cooperating with us and is supportive of the service. We anticipate including a variety of strategic partners — unique investors necessary for continued development after the launch of Circulate.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

News entrepreneur boot camp seeks to launch 15 journalism ventures

I’m back from 5 days in Los Angeles at the Knight Digital Media Center News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, held at the University of Southern California under the auspices of USC Annenberg. Long ago I lived in San Francisco for a year and never felt an earthquake, but for the occasion of our five days in L. A. there were two “moderate” quakes, 4.7 and 4.1 on the Richter scale.

More significantly, if not of earthshaking import, the boot camp met the expectations of participants to help them shape their visions into plausible business ventures. As both a participant and an observer, my feeling was that the proceedings lent credence to the idea that going forward, successful journalism can happen not just in large organizations but in small, bootstrapped operations that target well-identified local, regional and national needs.

The businesses being formulated by the campers ranged from hyperlocal news sites to local, regional and national niche sites on politics, economic development, technology, entertainment, health, education and consumer issues. Several of them underwent major revisions in their focus or funding options during the camp.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

QR code: tool for journalists?

Michael Josefowicz, self-styled “print evangelist” and a frequent commenter here at Nieman Journalism Lab, has a new post at PBS’s MediaShift that will bring you up to date on QR codes, which look to be “CueCat done right.”

QR stands for “quick response.” QR codes are two-dimensional scanning code blocks that can be placed in print ads. Readers scan the code with their Web-enabled cell phone and are instantly connected with Web content relevant to the ad. Marketers get an instant read on how well their ad is working and how much of their Web traffic is print-driven. The codes are fairly common in Japan and are beginning to show up in European publications. As usual these days, we’ll see this in the U.S. somewhere down the road.

QR codes can be used by journalists as well — they can be included in a print story to connect readers with background or detail, or to provide feedback to reporters and editors. The QR responses can also help sort out what kinds of readers like what kinds of content. Josefowicz:

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Maybe Google really needs newspapers


Google has steadily and politely resisted suggestions from various quarters that since it has so much cash and clout, it should just rescue the newspaper business. Wisely, they have stuck with the mantra that they are out to organize information, not to publish content.

But this week we hear that Google is in negotiations with the New York Times and the Washington Post (and, one assumes, possibly others) “about improved ways of creating and presenting news online.” And Richard Siklos at Fortune reports

that an intermediary tried to interest Google in “buying the Times.”

Nicholas Carlson at Silicon Valley Insider mentions a couple of possible ingredients in the Times/Google talks:

  • A potential agreement in which any time Google’s search crawlers find a Web site carrying New York Times content and Google ads, Google would split the revenue it gets from those ads with the Times.
  • Google would somehow help the New York Times actually embed ads within its text so that when blogs or other Web sites use that text, the ads go with it. We have no idea how Google and the Times would do this. Neither does our source.

The latter is certainly something that a news organization allowing fairly free use of its content via an API would want to be exploring.

Two recent blog posts offer other possible explanations for the schmoozing between Google, Times and WaPo execs:

Read the rest of this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Photo credit: Adriaan Bloem, used under Creative Commons license.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wolfram-Alpha and other ways to enhance database journalism

Participants at Matt Thompson’s recent gathering on the Future of Context discussed (among many other things) database journalism — city crime maps, for example — and agreed that they can actually be a disservice to readers. The problem comes in maintaining the data: a reporter or team gathers data, analyzes it, creates interesting presentation graphics — and then often fails to maintain the data, so that it is quickly out of date, irrelevant, and even misleading. As well, a map presented without context or interpretation can lead to erroneous conclusions by readers.

As news organizations look to add high-value content that might form the core of paid-content sections for their sites, compilations and analysis of public (but not necessarily online) information is one of the areas they’re exploring. (See, for example, Steve Buttry’s laundry list of data the Cedar Rapids Gazette is looking to incorporate on its sites.) As the data imported to the site grows, so does the maintenance issue.

One way out of this is the way the Raleign (N.C.) News & Observer handles it: their crime maps are set up to pull information directly and continuously from law enforcement databases, so that the maps are always up-to-date. The N&O uses the same approach with many of the other data topics in its impressive Fact Finder resource.

alpha_logo_apr09Another resource that may prove useful to database journalism is Wolfram Alpha, which is set to launch on May 18. Some have heralded its advent as potentially “changing the internet forever”:

Wolfram Alpha will not only give a straight answer to questions such as “how high is Mount Everest?”, but it will also produce a neat page of related information — all properly sourced — such as geographical location and nearby towns, and other mountains, complete with graphs and charts.

The real innovation, however, is in its ability to work things out “on the fly,” according to its British inventor, Dr. Stephen Wolfram. If you ask it to compare the height of Mount Everest to the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it will tell you. Or ask what the weather was like in London on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it will cross-check and provide the answer. Ask it about D sharp major, it will play the scale. Type in “10 flips for four heads” and it will guess that you need to know the probability of coin-tossing. If you want to know when the next solar eclipse over Chicago is, or the exact current location of the International Space Station, it can work it out.

Continue reading this post (and watch Wolfram-Alpha demo video) at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Boston Globe drama: what's next?

In the high-stakes poker game to at least erase the Boston Globe’s reported $85 million annual operating loss and get to breakeven, it looks like management has won the first few hands. Following deals with several other unions, the Globe and the Newspaper Guild reached a settlement in the wee hours this morning. All of the deals need to be ratified, but assuming that happens, what’s next?

The employee concessions so far will only bring the deficit down to $65 million, which leaves a long way to go. Presumably, the restructured union contracts will provide management the flexibility it needs to pursue strategies that not only close the gap, but reshape the business into a news enterprise ready for a new age.

Here are some thoughts on what else might be coming down the pike for the Globe of tomorrow to survive and be profitable:

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A confab with Matt Thompson: Noodling the future of context

matt_smubLast week I had the pleasure of participating in a one-day think tank in Washington, DC, called “The Future of Context.” It was organized by Matt Thompson, a 2008-2009 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, where his focus was on “Wikipedia-ing the news.” During the academic year, he blogged his project at Newsless, and out of his work came Columbia Tomorrow, a just-launched site that aims to provide contextual environment for news about economic development in and around Columbia, Misouri.

True to the “Future of Context” title, and nurtured by Matt’s excellent skills in moderating a discussion, much of the D.C. discussion was oriented toward discovering the shape of news in context to come. I’ll leave it to Matt to report (in context!) the full proceedings of the confab, but let me highlight a few insights that struck me as particularly valuable (attributed to the participants who offered them where I recorded it in my notes , but unfortunately I failed to do that in each instance):

  • Bounded news sites will be less important than news networks, which can surround topics in a fluid way. Individual news sites can add curated news networks, and add value with features like “what’s changed since you last checked in.”
  • Creating such topical networks is easier for big questions, harder for long-tail topics.
  • The right technology and user interfaces can incorporate sourcing material and make it relevant to the story, and can transform traditional sourcing networks into crowdsourced networks — a way to build living stories. (Phil Bennett, Washington Post)
  • Commenting needs to evolve into conversation. This can be done by having reporters and editors step in, add context, ask questions, and moderate the discussion flow.
Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Out of print: the future of news, newspapers and journalism

The following is a paper I presented on April 25, 2009 to the Monday Evening Club of Pittsfield, Massachusetts

The topic I’m presenting tonight will be familiar to most of you, even if you have not been a regular visitor to my blog. Not a week has gone by in the last six months without news of a threatened or actual closing of a major newspaper, the bankruptcy of a major newspaper publisher, layoffs, buyouts or mandatory furloughs imposed on newspaper employees, and other symptoms of the travails of a once-powerful and monopolistically rich industry. This month [April, 2009], readers of the Boston Globe were shocked to find a front-page headline and story disclosing that its owner, the New York Times Company, was threatening to stop publishing the paper on May 1 unless it got major concessions from its unions.

It’s not surprising the New York Times Company would make this threat, since the Globe is reported to be losing well over a million dollars a week. The Times company has run out of credit lines, has sold and leased back a chunk of its recently completed Times Square headquarters building, is peddling its stake in the Boston Red Sox, and has borrowed $250 million from a Mexican tycoon the flagship paper had earlier called a robber baron. Clearly the Times is not in a position to subsidize the red ink at the Globe, for which it paid $1.1 billion in the mid 1990s.

And among newspaper owners, the Times company is relatively well off. Among the publicly-owned US newspaper firms, several are bankrupt, and most have credit ratings at or near junk-bond status. Their collective market value has fallen by more than 90 percent in the past few years. Collectively, the industry has laid off more than 10 percent of its workforce since the start of 2008. The combined paid circulation of American daily newspapers has fallen from more than 63 million in 1984 to less than 50 million today — a drop of 21 percent during a time when the number of households grew by about 40 percent. U.S. Daily newspapers today have less than 14 percent of total U.S. advertising expenditures. In 1989 it was 28 percent — so they’ve lost half their market share in 20 years. These are long-term trends that predate the arrival of the World Wide Web, and they have continued unabated through economic expansions as well as recessions.

For people with an appreciation for the importance of good journalism to the maintenance of a free and democratic society, and for the historical role of newspapers in providing what is often considered the best, broadest and deepest journalism available, the industry’s decline is a concern. What went wrong? What can be done? Will there be newspapers a few years from now? Where will essential journalism happen if newspapers depart the stage?

The origins of the present crisis in newspapers, as I’ve indicated, go back many years. The question is, what’s driving the trend away from newspaper reading?

Continue reading this post at the Monday Evening Club blog.

Photo: the "newsboy statue" in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, by AkaGeorge, used under Creative Commons license.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Complete Community Connection: more reinvention in Cedar Rapids

You can’t really call it a blog post when the printout stretches to 33 single-spaced pages, but it’s highly recommended reading: Steve Buttry, the “information content conductor” of Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has published “A blueprint for the Complete Community Connection” as a nine-parter on his blog. More conveniently, you can download the whole thing at Scribd (very simple registration required.)

In his previous incarnation at the American Press Institute, Buttry worked on the Newspaper Next project, which urged newspapers to adopt disruptive innovation as a strategy, rather than being disruptively innovated against. (Newspaper Next is now apparently dormant — why is it that various efforts to start up innovation engines to help the industry peter out after a while?) Buttry came up with the first version of the Complete Community Connection concept (C3 for short) at API; Gazette Communications, willing to try out-of the-box ideas (perhaps because it is led by an executive with a non-news background, Chuck Peters), has become the laboratory for testing his ideas.

In a nutshell, C3 envisions that Gazette, or any company adopting the concept, will become what I would call “community glue”:

Our company will provide an interactive, well-organized, easily searched, ever-growing, always updated wealth of community news, information and opportunities on multiple platforms. We need to become the connection to everything people and businesses need to know and do to live and do business in Eastern Iowa. We need to change from producing new material for one-day consumption in the print product or half-hour consumption in the broadcast product to producing new content for this growing community network of information and opportunities.

Ultimately, in Buttry’s view, this includes finding ways to “connect the business with the customer and collect the money, taking a reasonable cut for ourselves.” He outlines a number of “community content opportunities”:

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.