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Big news in Hyperlocaland

Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet and the Queen of Hyperlocal, is moving to a new gig at Montclair State University, where she will share her experience and help nurture and grow the local news ecosystem of New Jersey. In short, she will spread her hyperlocal fairy dust over the Garden State. Baristanet continues under the strong and loyal local leadership of Liz George, who has been there almost from the start. The queen has left the building. Long live the queens.

I am personally delighted that Debbie is helping to spearhead this effort. I’ve been helping MSU and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation on the project since the foundation’s head (and my neighbor), Chris Daggett, and a group of other funders called a meeting of public and private media people, bloggers, funders, and other concerned parties two years ago in Newark to address the crisis in the state’s media. At that meeting, it was Debbie who suggested the structure of a co-op to serve the independent members of the state’s media ecosystem. It is fitting that she will now be working to build it.

What exactly this venture will do will take shape after Debbie embarks on what she calls a listening tour, talking to the members of the media ecosystem to see what they need and listening to others to see what it would take to make it grow and improve. Opportunities could include training (in media, journalism, and business); sharing content; collaborative projects; and services (technology? insurance?). What else?

MSU is a wonderful home for this effort. The university is starting a School of Communication and Media. Under President Susan Cole, working with Matthew Frankel and Jack Shannon there, MSU has already invited in NJTV to base its operations at the school. WNYC’s New Jersey arm, NJ Public Radio, will work out of there, as will other media organizations. As all these newsies — and students and faculty — work under one roof, it’s hoped that collaboration will blossom and New Jersey will benefit.

I see New Jersey as a magnificent opportunity to rethink and rebuild local news. I like to think of it as a blank slate: a huge and underserved market that can finally get the media it deserves. The Dodge Foundation, MSU, and WNYC have raised some funds for their endeavors. There’s more to be raised and much to be done. This is just the beginning.

I remember Baristanet’s beginning as one model for what can be done to improve news locally. More than eight years ago, when I still ran NJ.com, I held a meetup in a New Jersey coffeehouse to try to get folks to blog about their towns on our service. Debbie Galant, who’d been writing about blogs before she wrote them, was there. She thought blogging about a town was a great idea. “But why would I do it for you, Jeff?” she said. She was, as usual, right. So she started her own, Baristanet.

That blog has been an amazing success, covering Montclair and Maplewood with a strong local voice (and having fun while they’re at it) while innovating ways to serve local advertisers and earning enough to support the endeavor. Success became Baristanet’s burden as many others jumped in to compete in its not-at-all-metaphorical backyard: Aol’s Patch, for a time The New York Times’ The Local, not to mention the long-established weekly paper. Meanwhile, too many towns in New Jersey are still starved for coverage. Feast/famine. Now, I hope, Debbie can help spread the wealth to other towns and help others (like my entrepreneurial graduate, founder of ElizabethInsideout).

Success became a burden in another sense as many came knocking at Baristanet’s door for advice. I was frequently among them, asking Debbie to come speak to students and join conferences and help with the research we have done at CUNY on new business models for local news. Debbie would sigh because she was plenty busy serving Baristanet. But she was also plenty generous, always bringing her knowledge and experience to help others. Now that will be her job. Perfect.

I know that hyperlocal is a challenging model. There are questions about whether it scales (that’s the suspense of Patch). We need to do much more work on how to best serve local advertisers in effective and profitable ways (that’s our next wave of research at CUNY; more on that later this week). There’s no one more realistic about the challenges and opportunities than Debbie. So I salute her on her new endeavor. God’s work.

(Disclosures are in order: I worked for the parent company of NJ.com for almost a dozen years and I’m back now helping with its development. In the past, I was listed as an adviser to Patch, but that has always been informal. And I have a vested interest in improving New Jersey media. I live there.)

News articles as assets and paths

This is the start of a new project I’m working on to brainstorm new forms, relationships, and (business) models for news. Responding to a current discussion on Twitter among @AntDeRosa, @felixsalmon, @jayrosn_nyu & @davewiner about the form of articles, I’m posting it here. The discussion started when Jay challenged Anthony, as a representative of Reuters, about the service’s article on the Facebook IPO: “Should be a sign on this story: ‘written so people who aren’t in the investor class cannot understand it.'” I said that the story needs a link to an explainer (which Jay has written about), because background paragraphs necessarily ill-serve everyone: too little for the novice, too much for the expert, they were an invention that fit the necessity of our means of production and distribution. I say we should link to more elements than just backgrounders. Let’s reinvent the article. To wit…

I come not to kill the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is perfectly suited to its form: headline and lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graf delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother reading the rest; background graf bringing us up to speed; timelines to set context; catalogues of issues and players; quotes from various perspectives; examples — all prioritized so readers can easily navigate the form and extract its value and so that printers with scarce time and limited space in the paper can lop off lines at the bottom without losing the heart of the matter. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach, including the skills of summary and abstraction (what is the story? — perhaps the most difficult skill a journalist learns), of evidence and example, of completeness and fairness, of narrative and engagement, of prioritization. This is the form that teaches the essential logic of journalism: that any event, issue, battle, or person can be packaged and delivered in so many lines of type. That is what we do.

Given the opportunities presented by new media technologies, we’ve added to the article, giving it not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added graphics and graphics that move and interact to readers’ commands. We’ve curated related links to give readers more from our own archives or from anywhere on the web. For good and ill, we’ve added comments.

Now let’s subtract from the article, deconstructing it into its core assets. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimum form. Take the background paragraph. It ill serves everyone. If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.

Freed from those limitations, what should the background paragraph become? A link, of course: a link to an ongoing resource that is updated when necessary — not every time a related article is written. It is a resource a reader can explore at will, section by section to fill in knowledge, making it more personalized, efficient, and valuable for each reader. It can be created by the news organization that links to it or it can be created by anyone and still be only a link away. It can be a Wikipedia article. The background in an ongoing story becomes an asset of ongoing value.

A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present — and the reader to take — many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what’s new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what’s new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths.

Think of how Prezi works: This PowerPoint replacement isn’t built just to make its viewers dizzy as one navigates through floating, weightless text. It forces the creator to organize ideas and then create appropriate paths through them. So imagine that what used to be an article becomes a set of assets — all those I listed above: what’s new, background, timeline, players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for the professsional, another for the policymaker.

Of course, those assets themselves can be constantly updated as needed. And, again, they need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. (Remember: Do what you do best and link to the rest.)

Perhaps we end up with news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets: the latest (a wire service) or explainers (weekly publications like the Economist) or relationships (algorithms like Daylife’s) or data (e.g., Texas Tribune). Of course, the people formerly known as the audience (quoth Rosen) can also create assets. May the best assets win: Link to that which best explains a story. And may the best paths win: Curate the assets that best get the story across. Maybe the best editor becomes the best creator of paths. Maybe algorithms help create paths by finding the most recommended assets from the most trusted sources (data that readers create through their use).

Then articles become new molecules that bind atoms from an ecosystem of information.

What would it take to do this? As De Rosa said in the Twitter discussion, it would require new culture and procedures in a newsroom. Instead of thinking that we have to turn out a self-contained article for every event, we instead find assets and create paths. For that matter, instead of leaving the reader to dig through a live blog to discern the elements of an event, we also find assets and create paths (which may include posts in that live blog).

I can already hear people in newsrooms fret that we need a new CMS (content management system) to do this. Not really. It’s called the link. We can kludge that and then make it more elegant and efficient and automatic once we’ve figured it out. So I don’t think we need to start with a hackathon and new code, though coders can definitely help. I think we need to start with a new notion of the value of an article and how to create that value.

The end result is still an inverted pyramid — a prioritized set of assets that one can stop going through when one feels sated with information. But everyone’s pyramid can be different. And what fills those pyramids can come from various sources. The article is dead. Long live the article.

It was suggested in the Twitter conversation that we have a conference (let’s just say lunch) on this topic. Done. I’ll schedule it at CUNY.

LATER: Storify of the Twitter discussion referenced at the start of this post here.

The (not so) daily news

I have more conflicts than a Louisiana politician when it comes to the news of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reducing its frequency from seven to three days a week: I was in charge of digital content in the parent-company division that started its sister site, NOLA.com; I worked on Advance’s Ann Arbor project; I was involved in the early stage of its Michigan project; and I’m working with Advance on another effort — though I am privy to nothing about New Orleans today. So take anything I say with a grain of salt the size of the Gulf of Mexico…. Still, I can’t not comment on the news.

Mathew Ingram and Ken Doctor will take you through the economic reality at work in New Orleans and Advance’s Alabama and Michigan markets: The cost of printing seven days a week is becoming unsustainable. It’s still profitable to print two or three days a week, not because those are the only days when news happens but because newspapers are still in the distribution business and those are the most lucrative — still-lucrative — days to distribute inserted and printed ads.

That could change again when and if (a) newspaper circulation falls below the critical mass needed to distribute coupons and circulars and (b) local advertisers become more savvy and finally move online themselves. Then printing and distributing paper will become even less profitable, even less sustainable. That’s when print could — mind you, I didn’t say “will” as I’m not predicting the form’s demise; I repeat, “could” — disappear.

By then, newspapers had better be ready. That is, they had better have become digital companies. That is the essence of the digital first strategy: become sustainable, successful online companies that can survive without (or with) print. And grow again from there.

That’s the process we’re witnessing here — that and a continuing cutback brought on by falling circulation and advertising revenue; not a new story, of course. This is a most difficult transition.

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has been talking about this transition for years. Back in 2005, he talked about buying the last presses. Later, he talked about trying to move his newspaper over what he called the green blob — the great unknown that stands between declining print and ascending digital. That is the job of the editor and publisher today: to make that transition. Shifting content, staff, readers, and advertisers from print to digital is necessary. Improving digital is necessary. And rethinking print is necessary.

If profitable, I think there could continue to be a role for print. In the Guardian’s case, I’d propose that it follow the very successful model of Die Zeit in Germany and publish once a week as the Weekend Observer, turning the Guardian into an online-only, worldwide brand, which it pretty much already is. See, I’m not against print.

But we have to make print beside the point. Of course, it’s not the manufacturing and distribution we should care about preserving and advancing. It’s the journalism and service. It’s not the past we want to protect. It’s the future.

You can argue with the strategy undertaken by any newspaper company undergoing this difficult transition. But better a transition than the alternative.

LATER: Postmedia in Canada just announced that it, too, is cutting frequency, ending Sunday papers (which are thin like Saturday papers in the U.S.) in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. The National Post is suspending Mondays in the summer and looking at its schedule. The company is moving page production to a shared facility in Hamilton, Ont. Disclosure: I’m on the digital advisory board for Postmedia.