Posts about journalism

Good metrics, bad metrics

Screenshot 2014-03-10 at 10.28.01 AMChartbeat CEO Tony Haile writes an important piece about bad media metrics online. He pokes holes in the value of the click as the be-all-and-end-all of media measurement. He reveals that sharing turns out to be a bad measurement of engagement and value because we often don’t read what we “like” or share (we just bother other people with it). He deflates the value of native advertising, demonstrating with hard data that readers understand the difference between real content and — let’s call it what it is — advertising and they quickly abandon it.

The bottom line of Tony’s data is bad news for cynical publishers who have tried to manipulate readers with link-bait headlines and lists, and who are trying to pull the wool over advertisers’ eyes by selling them link-bait listicles and so-called native advertising. Certain emperors have no clothes. The readers know it. The advertisers will wake up and realize it.

But that’s the bad news.

Where we should turn the discussion next is to what the right metrics for media should be. As they say, you get what you measure. So what should we measure? How do we create positive feedback loops that improve the news, not degrade it as unique users, pageviews, and other relics of mass media have done?

I’ll start with the most important and most difficult thing to measure: outcomes. Were people more informed because of what we gave them? Did they accomplish what they wanted as individuals (Sally got new health insurance and saved money) or as communities (Riverdale cleaned up that messy park)? I just had breakfast with Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting and he told me they start the process of reporting by considering impact and they end by trying to measure it. Why deal in bad proxies for good journalism, based on popularity, when we could get to the reason journalism should exist: to improve the world?

In his book News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton says that news has “the power to assemble the picture that citizens end up having of one another; the power to dictate what our idea of ‘other people’ will be like; the power to invent a nation in our imaginations.” And it has the power to help us get there. (Many more quotes in my post about the book, here.) Mark Zuckerberg says that platforms, including news, should offer communities “elegant organization.” These are higher aspirations than mere exposure.

On a tour of technology companies in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago with my dean, we talked about metrics and found different measurements being used for different platforms with different goals. Ev Williams’ Medium values total time spent reading. That is appropriate for a platform that wants to get people to explore ideas in depth — and I find I’m spending more time there reading more posts; it’s working.

Attention, in the form of time spent, is used by many in media as a measure of engagement. But that’s not always the case. Attention can also be another egocentric media metric: how many people come to look at my stuff; how many pages of my stuff do they look at; how much time do they spend with my stuff? No, sometimes, the less time spent the better. What if news were more efficient? Sometimes, spending less time to get what I want is the right metric. That metric doesn’t serve the old media business model of delivering as many eyeballs to as many ads as possible. That is why Yahoo shifted from — in the words of cofounder Jerry Yang — getting you in and out with the answer you needed as quickly as possible to instead trying to bombard you with content and keep you around as long as possible to show you as many ads as possible. Attention, in the wrong hands, can also be a corrupting metric.

Cir.ca has a fascinating metric: follows. When a reader follows a story, she is telling Cir.ca, “Please bother me and let me know when something new happens here.” That is a measure of true interest.

Similarly, Flipboard keeps track of how many people subscribe to a publication — and even to an advertiser’s publication. It also watches what people “flip” or save to read later, which strikes me as a much better indication of interest than sharing.

Google has long valued links as a digital version of citation. That has served search well. Google News also uses citations to try to infer which news organization created or is staying on top of a story — if everyone writing about Walter Reed Army Medical Center quotes the Washington Post then there’s a good chance it’s the Post’s story.

Repost.US and YouTube and now Getty Images track embeds — how many people truly want to share a video or an article because they repost it in their own space on the web. The problem with just “liking” or “sharing” on Twitter and Facebook is that there turns out to be no cost for those transactions; it’s too easy to just keep passing things on. Embedding uses my space and affected my reputation with you. I would like to see more such higher friction means of sharing that really do impute engagement.

What is engagement? It’s likely not one measure of one method of interacting with content. It could be that I spend time with something, that I interact with it or the people gathered around it (though don’t we know that comments are no indication of quality), that I save it, that I take action based on it.

We want to find good proxies for engagement in the hopes that they will lead us to indications of quality, which in turn should tell us something about the authority of the creator and the trust the public has in her. None of these is easy to measure, like “likes.”

Another word for engagement is relationship. I have been arguing that we in news should stop seeing ourselves as content factories and start seeing ourselves as members of our communities who are in the relationship business, who use what we know about people to better serve them. Thus, I ask media companies how many relationships they have with the people they serve and what they know about them — what signals they have, enabling them to improve relevance and thus value and often impact. Those are metrics that start with the public rather than with media. Those are metrics that matter.

Listen: They do exist

My two recent posts about philanthropy and the news touched a nerve among not-for-profit news gatherers, leading to a podcast conversation with Scott Lewis, head of Voice of San Diego (starting at about :22), and a response by Steve Waldman. Laura Walker, the CEO of New York Public Radio, also asked to respond here. Laura is a brilliant businesswoman who could run rings around any for-profit media executive. She also made a big announcement today about a $10 million grant to fund digital innovation. I don’t usually hand this space over to anyone else, but I happily give it to Laura here:

logo-wnycYour post “Philanthropy and News” and related tweets have sparked an important conversation about the role of philanthropy in journalism. I wholeheartedly agree with you that philanthropy should help build sustainable models in journalism that have diverse revenue streams. As you often point out, business thinking and revenue generation are critical to the future of our industry.

But, I don’t agree at all with your statement: “Every time a rich person gives to a news nonprofit, a journalism startup loses its wings.” Philanthropic giving to nonprofit news doesn’t compete with investment in for-profit news startups. It’s not “an either/or” scenario as to who will survive. More importantly, philanthropic support for journalism has provided seed funding for successful models of nonprofit journalism, including public radio. Models of success do exist!

Here’s how I see it:

• Philanthropic grants are not taking away capital from startups. The motivations and reasons for venture funding are fundamentally different from philanthropy. Both can be an investment in the future of news and work together to enhance overall quality in journalism.

• Investment in nonprofit journalism can be an investment in sustainable journalism. Already today, philanthropy is seed funding important work and sustainability in journalism; just look at public radio, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. To be sure, many nonprofit journalism enterprises have failed, and many don’t have business leadership. Just as with a for-profit investment, it is critical that philanthropic investors “kick the tires” on the leadership of nonprofits to make sure that a business plan has been created and sustainability can be achieved.

• Hands down, the most successful sustainable nonprofit model is public radio, and it is too often overlooked by you and others. Public radio, with some 1,200 reporters including NPR and stations around the country, has diverse revenue streams, uses venture philanthropy, and through collaboration offers national scale, local relevance and powerful enterprise journalism.

Let’s take New York Public Radio as an example:

Diverse Revenue Streams

• Our journalism and radio programs are sustained through the contributions of 175,000+ members, corporate underwriting, events, fees from other public radio stations, as well as institutional giving and major donor gifts.

• Institutional giving and major donor gifts are just pieces of a diversified revenue model that is built to promote long-term sustainability and impact.

Venture Philanthropy

• Philanthropy often seeds new ideas and helps create an infrastructure for them.Then, we sustain these efforts over time in concert with other diverse revenue sources. Philanthropic contributions from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Jerome L. Greene Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and others have acted as venture funding to seed projects like our Stop and Frisk coverage, our Data News unit,Radiolab, The Takeaway, and our New Jersey news unit, as well as the creation of digital apps that are designed for how people consume news today.

• This approach fuels just the type of innovation you are calling for and has resulted in journalism that has won many awards, including three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards and seven George Foster Peabody Awards in the last several years.

Collaboration

• “Philanthropy and News” also highlighted the need for collaboration within the news ecosystem – to both innovate and best serve audiences. At its heart, the public radio system is based on a collaborative reporting model – stations working with NPR and other national outlets to cover breaking news and to offer an expansive national report.

• Then, there are projects and efforts within the system like Fronteras along the border, The Takeaway and the New Jersey News Commons, in which our New Jersey Public Radio service plays a leading role, working with NJ Spotlight, Montclair State University’s journalism program and other news providers, small and large, new and established.

• Sometimes we compete and sometimes we collaborate, but as a recent J-Lab study noted: “Public media outlets play an important role for news startups. A partnership with a public broadcaster amplifies their journalism and validates their efforts in ways that can help their sustainability.”

We both agree that building sustainability in journalism is essential. We should learn from all the models before us – the ones that failed, the successful ones that currently exist, and the experiments being taken up by for-profit startups and fueled by philanthropy in the nonprofit sector. For an example of sustainable nonprofit journalism, just listen to your radio.

The price of eggs

Glenn Greenwald has responded to Pando Daily’s story about the Omidyar Network and Ukraine with the force and speed we have come to expect. Good. Now I also wish he and his colleagues would turn around, ignore Pando, and create a statement of principles, a compact with the public. Greenwald begins that in his last paragraph of the Pando post:

But what I do know is that I would never temper, limit, suppress or change my views for anyone’s benefits – as anyone I’ve worked with will be happy to tell you – and my views on such interference in other countries isn’t going to remotely change no matter the actual facts here. I also know that I’m free to express those views without the slightest fear. And I have zero doubt that that’s true of every other writer at The Intercept. That’s what journalistic independence means.

That is still reactive to Pando. I would like to see a positive statement of principles: What we stand for. What we guarantee you we will always do and never do. What we will disclose to you….

You could say that we already have journalistic principles, plenty of them, produced by no end of journalism practitioners, professors, and blatherers like me. Very true.

But as Greenwald and others reinvent journalism, it is good to rethink and reassert principles. It is a useful exercise for any journalistic organization: for a reimagined New York Times or a newly invented First Look or Pando or even Gawker. What do you stand for? What assurances to you give us, the public you serve, that we can and should trust you? What can we expect of you?

Greenwald’s principles would not match those of fusty old American journalistic institutions. Start with the obvious: He takes stands. He has a perspective. He measures his value by his impact. (And I endorse those principles.) That is his raison d’être. What is theirs?

Now Greenwald also says that the views and actions of his funder don’t matter because he promises he won’t let them matter (see: principles above) and besides, all rich people have views and entanglements and — to paraphrase a classic Woody Allen joke — we need the eggs. Well…..

There are limits. I pulled my last book, Public Parts, from Harper Collins because I was being critical of and did not want to be subject to the control of Rupert Murdoch. There are others I would not work for and some I am sure Greenwald would not work for (even if they would hire him). I worked for others I should have liked — like Time Inc. — but threatened to resign when I disapproved of what they did. I know my limits.

So there is another step needed here: We need to hear from the funders, the moguls, to give us first transparency and then assurances.

Now in Pierre Omidyar’s case, I pointed out yesterday as Greenwald did today that it took only .3 milliseconds in a Google search to find that the Omidyar Network had funded civil society groups in Ukraine; they sent out a press release about it in 2011. I’m not sure what Pando’s revelation was, except perhaps to make the connection with USAID, though that’s also discoverable. Given Omidyar’s and his network’s vast activities, it’s hard to say that they could create a single transparency document (like simple me). Instead, it is better that they operate under a principle of revealing their financial involvements and making them transparent to Google search.

But what we could have is assurances from both sides of a financial transaction: not only the journalists assure us of their independence, as Greenwald does, but also that the funders guarantee that independence. It would be good for Greenwald et al to write the statement of principles and for Omidyar to endorse it.

When I wrote a post about philanthropy’s relationship to news this week, I had a sixth guideline I should have left in: Charity brings strings. Journalists like to think that they can get manna from heaven to rescue them from the nasty commerce of marketing and advertising, of earning audience and revenue, of sustainability. But as the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger has pointed out, it was advertising that freed journalism from the control of political entities and gave them independence.

Now journalists are seeking patronage once more. They need to take those checks with eyes wide open and they need to have a conversation with the public about the implications for them and the journalism they serve to us.

Philanthropy and the news

1280px-Andrew_Carnegie's_statue,_Dunfermline (1)
On a trip to Silicon Valley with my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, I heard technology people express concern about the state of news. That is good of them, for they have had a role in the disruption of news — and I’m glad they have. Now they need to consider taking the fruits of their technology and the innovation, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and wealth it has created and turn some of it and their attention toward the good of society and perhaps, with it, journalism.

But not as philanthropists. That was my plea to them. We in journalism need them to bring their innovation and investment to news, to teach us how to see and exploit new opportunities to improve news and sustain it. More on the role of technologists another day.

Today, I want to talk about the role of philanthropy. As I was thinking about my trip to the Bay Area — and in the midst of a magnum opus Twitter conversation about the future of news sparked and stoked by Marc Andreessen — I tweeted this:

My good friend Jay Rosen got angry with me, accusing me of being hostile to nonprofit news.

Not true, I replied. I am expressing a preference. Given a source of capital and given the state of innovation in news and media — this is 1472 in Gutenberg years — I prefer to see that precious resource go first to sustainability. Don’t buy a hungry man a fish — or a news-starved community another article. Don’t just teach them to fish. Build the damned fishing boats.

A few months ago, I went to an event in Washington for nonprofit news organizations put on by the Knight Foundation and Pew. Again and again, we heard that the problem with too many of these good organizations is that they put no resource into development — whether fundraising or sponsorship or events. I often hear journalists say that every dollar they get should go straight into reporting; anything else feels practically immoral to them. But so is letting their good work die and disappear: no more fish, no fishing boats, just fishwrap.

I also hear journalists say that they don’t want to concern themselves with the business of journalism. Clearly, I disagree. That is precisely why I started the Tow-Knight Center in Entrepreneurial Journalism.

In New Jersey, I have been doing a lot of work alongside the Dodge Foundation, Montclair State, and others to try to build the foundation for a sustainable news ecosystem that can grow and improve. We are working with sites to make them profitable by improving the services they sell to local merchants, by experimenting with new revenue streams like events, by building a network to share content and audience and — soon, I hope — advertising. We just received $2 million from Knight and one of their wise conditions was that we not spend the money on operations — on buying more stories — but instead on building infrastructure. That is why we are hiring a sustainability director to manage just that. (Know anyone who’d be great at the job?)

So I do see a role for philanthropy in news, an important role. But I’ll caution journalists — as will every foundation I know — that there is not enough money in the endowments of all the foundations interested in supporting news to pay for the work that needs to be done. Similarly, charity and patronage from individuals and companies can do much, whether that is supporting the work of public radio or now crowdfunding a worthy project from a journalist. But neither can that do it all. Charity runs out. That resource is precious and should go where it is most needed.

So now I’ll have the temerity to propose not rules but suggested guidelines for the use and role of philanthropy in news:

1. Philanthropy should support that which the market will not support. And it should wait patiently to determine what that is. In other words, just because something is not being done now does not mean that philanthropy should swoop in and take it over if the market may find opportunity in it.

2. Philanthropy should not compete with the market. We heard this some years ago when a new non-for-profit news entity sprouted in San Francisco and an executive at the crippled Chronicle complained that it could kill the paper. Thank goodness for the paper, the charity was worse run than it and the paper outlasted it.

3. Philanthropy should help build the economic sustainability and independence of news. Here’s the most self-serving thing I will say from my perch in a university: This includes training the next generation of news innovators. It also includes investing in infrastructure and innovation, new methods and models. Innovation in news requires patient capital that will fund not losses but instead experiments and daring failures. Philanthropy can do that.

4. Philanthropy — and journalism , too — should measure its success by the outcomes it accomplishes. Journalists have something to learn from foundations here: It’s not enough to produce content and build audience. Journalism has to help communities better themselves. That starts with listening to the public and its needs.

5. Charity is finite. Yes, you can start a news organization on charity. Yes, we could support a great deal of the investigative reporting we have philanthropically. But I am more ambitious than that; the need is greater. The souce for investigative reporting is (1) whistleblowers and (2) beat reporting. We need to support beats at scale. That’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing in New Jersey and why I’m starting a new training program for beat businesses in a box. Charity doesn’t scale. Sustainability does.

Philanthropy is precious, important, useful. It is a gift to use well and wisely. It isn’t an excuse not do do our jobs. And our job is to rebuild journalism into a service that will last.

Cross-posted to Medium and HuffingtonPost.

What now for news?

I’ve been working on a long essay that tries to answer the question I often hear in one form or another: “Now that your damned internet has ruined news, what now?” I don’t pretend to make predictions, only to explore opportunities around three ideas: new relationships, not forms, and new business models for news. I’ve posted the opening to the first third of the essay — about relationships — at Medium so I can get your reaction and insight, as that’s what Medium is designed to provide. Please do wander over and leave comments there or here. Thanks. Here are links to three pieces:

Part I: No mas mass media
Part II: Content vs. service
Part III: Ecosystems and networks

ecosystems_header
-askabiologist.asu.edu

Rethinking TV news, Part III: First, kill the stand-up

I was about to launch into writing a post about the most irritating habits of local TV news — starting with the most objectionable: the stand-up — when I got a surprising email from a producer at Fox Channel 5 News in New York: “We are working on a story about the most annoying things about local news,” he wrote. “Yes, we are really doing this. And it is for tonight.” I got a similar call from another network; more on that in a minute. So I spoke to the Channel 5 reporter for 10 minutes over Skype and they used one soundbite (which is another annoying thing TV news does, but I’m not complaining):

New York News

Points to Fox’ Joel Waldman for doing a stand-up ridiculing stand-ups.

Here’s why I hate the convention: The stand-up has zero journalistic value. It wastes time. It wastes precious reportorial resource. It turns the world into a mere backdrop for entertainment. It’s a fake. Take, for example, all the stand-ups we see these days at the George Washington Bridge because of the Christie scandal. Local TV news does it:

standup local 2

National TV news does it:

standup national

There is *no* reporting to be done at the bridge. None. There are no officials there. There are no sources to be found. The victims are long gone. So TV news wastes a reporter’s time and a crew’s time and the use of expensive equipment going to the bridge, standing there for an hour or more, where there is *nothing* happening, *nothing* to report. Why? Because TV thinks it must have video, style over substance, image über alles.

Think of how TV news covers, say, the ongoing deliberations of a jury in a trial. The anchor tells us what they’ve told us and what they’re going to tell us. The anchor throws to a reporter doing a stand-up in front of a courthouse where, of course, the jury is sequestered and there is nothing to learn and thus nothing to say. The reporter gives us a bit more background and tells us the jury is still out. The reporter throws back to the anchor. The anchor says they’ll be sure to tell us when something happens. All that hoo-ha could be replaced with the anchor reading one sentence: “The so-and-so jury is still out.” Bonus points if the anchor adds: “For background, see our web site.”

And on the web site, the TV station could have a standing piece explaining the background on the trial for anyone who has missed it. They’d waste less of their airtime and be able to give us, the audience, the public, more stories and/or more substance — wasting less of our time. More importantly, they’d free up the reporter to, well, *report* something rather than just regurgitating what we already know and nothing new: journalistic dry heaves.

I have taken to shouting at my TV when I see stand-ups in front of crime scenes where nothing has happened in at least 12 hours. Or when I hear anchors, particularly on network news, wasting precious seconds with empty transitions after reports: “Still much to learn” (no shit). Or when I see faked b-roll of someone walking down a hall or typing or talking on a phone to create images and easier edits — except this isn’t reality, it is staged, faked for us (how journalistic is that?). Or when I see team coverage of weather sticking rulers in snow or breaking eggs to fry (or now freeze) or demonstrating that ice is slick or that wind blows. Or when I see someone being interviewed and looking off-camera when they really should be talking to us (Hello? We’re over here!). And that is just a list of the silly orthodoxies of presentation on TV news, to say nothing of the quality, depth, originality, utility, wisdom, and incisiveness of the content itself.

I shouted at my TV and it didn’t listen … until now. Not only did I get that email from Fox 5 New York, but when I was in Davos, I spoke to a crew from Fusion, the new partnership of Univison and ABC, and couldn’t resist poking fun at the form, turning from the producer asking questions off-camera and staring instead directly into the camera to beg them to give up this silly, stilted convention. They didn’t air it. [CORRECTION: Turns out, they did air it, starting at :35.] Instead, they called me into the studio for a conversation with anchor Jorge Ramos.

We talked about the conventions of TV news:

And then Ramos asked me for my advice to Fusion:

I said in my first post on reinventing TV news that I wouldn’t dwell on the negative — preferring in a second post to concentrate on new opportunities — yet here I have focused on the bad, the silly, the wasteful. For we do need to get rid of the idea that real television news, professional television news must have stand-ups and establishing shots and staged b-roll and frothy transitions. We need to clean away that ancient filigree to free up resources and time to make TV news better, because it can be.

* * *

Here is the complete, 11-minute Fusion conversation:

Jeff Jarvis on AMERICA with Jorge Ramos from Fusion America on Vimeo.

The newest New York Times

Screenshot 2014-01-10 at 8.49.59 AMThe Guardian asked me to turn a series of tweets about the new New York Times site design into a review:

A web-site redesign is often an expensive, time-consuming, over-hyped exercise in media navel-gazing: an expression of institutional ego over user need. So I will confess a preemptive shrug at news of the newest New York Times online.

But I retract my shrug. As I explored the new site and tweeted my reaction, I quickly warmed to this new haircut on an old friend. It’s neither revolutionary nor terribly disruptive and leaves me feeling as if the paper online has tried to pay tribute to the paper as paper (why did they feel the need to resurrect the mix of italic and roman headlines that was de rigueur a half-century ago?). Still, The Times does much right.

The redesign kills the irritating news-site habit of cutting stories into multiple parts. In print, we newspaper folk called that “jumping” from, say, the front page to one inside, and every reader survey ever performed told editors that their customers hated that. Newspapers continued to do it online not because scarce space forced us to but instead because we wanted to pump up our pageviews: The more pages you viewed, the more ads you saw, the more money we made — or so went the myth of old mass media carried over to online. That is also the economic genesis of sites’ slideshow disease.

The Times now lets us scroll through a story without clicking. But there could be an economic rationale for that, too. Web analytics company Chartbeat found that readers tend to let their eyes skip right past the banners atop pages — usually sold as the most valuable ads — and end up spending more time exposed to the ads embedded down within longer tomes. Time engaged can build greater value than pages clicked.

In an effort to increase said engagement, The Times has tried to make it as easy as licking your finger and turning the page to move to the next story … and the next. There’s an arrow on the right of every story that moves the reader to the following story displayed in a horizontal menu above. Once I figured the system out — I’ll confess it took me a few clicks to associate the arrow with the preview in the bar — I found it, well, engaging. But I also found this feature, like the ability to read today’s paper — that is, the stories as packaged in the physical artifact — a bit too nostalgic for the idea of editorial presentation and control.

Nonetheless, I salute The Times for putting less effort into its home page (which on The Times attracts more than half of its readers in a day but on many news sites draws as few as 10 percent) than into creating a satisfying experience around the meat of the matter: the article.

I’m also relieved that The Times did not follow the example of its much-ballyhooed — and so-often-aped“snowfall” format, injecting animations and videos and sound and every manner of media into a simple text tale. There’s no digital Rococo in sight.

The new Times uses what geeks call the “hamburger button” (three parallel lines — two sandwiching the third) to get rid of the time-worn left-hand navigation bar. Speaking from experience running news sites, the nav bar became the basis of political turf wars, with editorial and commercial departments battling for more signage. With all that obvious information tucked away, there’s more room for what should be in a news site: news.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 9.01.29 AMI’ll quibble that once one does mouse-over the hamburger (oh, what has become of our language?) the resulting menu is three layers wide (e.g., arts to books to best sellers) and can require the manual dexterity of a pianist to play it. But as I confessed, I quibble.

One other important change in this redesign is The Times’ ability to accommodate the next supposed media messiah after the pay wall: native advertising, which is code for fooling readers into thinking that marketing messages are actual content. We used to call these things advertorials — you know, those things you skipped past. Now media mythology has it that every brand should be media and all media need content. But the real question is: Do you find value in reading an opus from Dell about “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT“? I don’t. I go to Dell to buy hardware, not words. As I recently warned a roomful of PR people itching to advertise natively: Content is a shitty business. Stay away! I predict that the fad will soon lose its luster.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 8.59.09 AM
But in the meantime, let’s at least give credit to The Times for doing native advertising right — that is, for being scrupulous about labeling it for what it is. “Paid for and posted by Dell,” says the warning atop every piece. “Written by Dell,” it says at the byline. “More paid posts from Dell,” it says to the right. Short of using the A-word — advertising — it can’t get much clearer than that. Now the question is: Will readers click and care? Will a 13-paragraph essay asking, “Can the Government Become Entrepreneurial?” sell more computers than a well-targeted coupon?

As former Times wunderkind Brian Stelter writes at CNN.com, much of the import of The Times redesign occurs behind the scenes in a new content management system that the paper says will make it easier to iterate with new technologies, obsoleting not the present site but instead the concept of the redesign. I argue that CMSes — like redesigns — are another expression of editorial ego. I’ll be egotistical enough to quote what I blogged on the topic:

It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it. What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.

The one thing missing from The Times redesign is me — or to put that less egotistically, you. I wish a news site would move away from its mass-production roots and devote just some proportion of its presentation to personal relevance, reducing noise and increasing engagement not through user interfaces but through delivering value. I’d like The Times to learn that I never read sports and often read about movies and devour media news and live in New Jersey and thus give me more relevance. Netflix knows what I like but my newspaper does not. Google knows where I live and work but my newspaper does not. Shouldn’t it?

This shift won’t require a redesign of pages and pixels or systems. It will require a rethinking of newsroom culture and commercial business models to emphasize service over content, outcomes over presentation, relationships over mass.

Oh, be warned: The Guardian is working on its own new systems and redesign.

Rethinking TV news part II: Experiments with forms and models

Allow me to speculate on new forms and models for TV news after Part I of this post looked at what’s broken and what’s possible.

webcast1TV with many eyes: First, a tale… Roger Ailes’ brilliance at Fox News was economic, not political. He realized that chatting about the news rather than gathering it would get higher ratings at a far lower cost. Just one weakness: The Fox folk need someone to chat with. I know because I used to work a block away and was often called in at a moment’s notice to blather, but when the guest they really wanted arrived, they gave me the bum’s rush. So I was talking with an old friend, former boss, and News Corp. executive many, many years ago, telling her about the wonders of these newfangled things called webcams. Put one of those in Judge Napolitano’s house and office and he can come on the air to yammer about the latest trial at a moment’s notice. She had me talk with some Fox VP about the notion and he dismissed it out of hand because, of course, the quality [lower voice to stentorian TV voice when saying this] was not broadcast quality. (I am relieved I did nothing in the service of Fox News.) But of course, soon thereafter, his own network proved him wrong as Oliver North was jerkily (in as many definitions of the word as you like) broadcasting from the Iraq war over satphone. And I was doing regular segments on MSNBC’s Coast to Coast from my den at home. Suddenly and briefly webcams themselves were hot. Now they are indeed used to bring remote guests on screen.

Brady-Bunch-GridBut webcams still have not been used to their fuller potential. Since those days, I’ve wanted to see a show that could call on a panel of guests — new voices, like old people ready to talk about a change in Social Security or geeks about the latest from the NSA. Imagine Wolf Blitzer’s giant screen as a matrix with a dozen people on it, and below each is a line of text — now a tweet — with his or her thoughts so Wolf can point to any of them to bring them on air. That was my old idea.

I was talking with someone smart about this the other day and he asked why we’d need Wolf. The audience is Wolf. A user, given a proper tool, can select who to hear from and broadcast the result: May the best show win. The audience can also go out and find new streams and add them to the mix. Imagine how useful that would be at a live event with many cams and phones trained on the action from different perspectives. Imagine, too, that the people formerly known as the audience can be a resource to answer questions (that’s what the chat room does in TWiT shows) or ask questions and thus direct coverage.

Now a webcam is far more than a cheap, remote camera without a satellite truck. It is a window onto new worlds of witnesses, experts, commentators, and people affected by the news: new voices, new perspectives. The prototype tool for this pretty much exists in Google+ Hangouts; I’d start experimenting with it to cover events and have topical discussions. Former local anchor Sarah Hill was a pioneer using Hangouts in her show. Huffington Post TV and TWiG have used Hangouts as well. But I think the tool can be pushed much more, having people use their phones not just for video selfies but for reporting from the field. Or when news breaks around an issue that affects one community’s or another’s lives, instead of having the same old “experts” on, why not seek out the voices of those affected by the news and have them on to get new perspectives? Or when you do have an expert, instead of having just one interviewer question her, why not have more experts or more people from an affected community ask their questions? There are a million TV cameras out there now. There are a million possibilities.

The (very) latest: Cable news’ greatest strength — breaking news — is also its greatest weakness, for after someone has read to us what’s known now, they just keep repeating the same facts (or speculations) and looping the same video, trying to fool us into thinking we’re up to date when they might not be. That’s because they have the constantly open maw of a channel to fill and they have competitors.

Online, I can imagine another way to cover breaking news, inspired by Wikipedia. Wikipedia offers a snapshot of what is known now. If nothing new emerges in an hour, no one feels compelled to update the page. Imagine if an online news service offered us the promise of (a) summarizing what is known about a breaking story now, (b) updating only when something new is know, and (c) alerting us when that occurs and giving us the choice whether to watch the latest. So we go watch a video on, say, Yahoo or NBC, to get the latest, whether that takes two or five or 10 minutes to report. Then we can go away and do other things, secure in the knowledge that when more is known, we can be alerted to watch a new video. This benefits the provider because we have elected to follow or subscribe to its updates (a la Cir.ca). If the provider abuses the privilege and sends us constant alerts, we’ll soon ignore that boy crying wolf. If you come into the middle of a story and need background, well, see the next idea.

Explainers and backgrounders: A bit of background before I get to the idea about background: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about deconstructing the time-honored article into assets and paths. When I draw an inverted pyramid in my classroom — the lede or what’s new on top, the nut paragraph that sums up the story next, the background paragraph next, and so on — I tell the students that the background graph ill serves everyone, giving too little to the newcomer and too much to the expert. What should it be online? I ask. A link, they dutifully respond. A link to what? Where to do we get our background these days? Wikipedia. Where do we get what’s new? Often Twitter. Where do we get explainers? Places like the Economist. Thus the article is unbundled into assets that can be made and maintained by various parties with various paths through them. Well, can’t TV — once freed of its linear prison — do the same?

Now imagine if one built and maintained a storehouse of explainers and backgrounders. They would not be ephemeral, gone with the last minute as on old TV. They would be assets that can get viewers and links over time, building value and reputation. They can also be updated. Video, known for dumbing down the news, could smarten itself and us up.

russertWhy video? Because, as I said in Part I, TV is good at explaining and demonstrating things. Explaining need not mean going crazy with computer graphics and interactivity or those now-hackneyed whiteboard animations with the hyperactive, disembodied hand making cute but uninformative pictures. No, I mean somebody who knows what the hell she’s talking about standing in front of a white board and ‘splaining something. That reminds me of the greatest invention in the history of television news graphics: Tim Russert’s whiteboard.

Backgrounders are a close cousin to explainers. Now return to the idea above about breaking news: You are watching updated segments giving you the latest on a developing story. But you don’t want to hear the background over and over again. Or if you come into the story late, you need background. So why not separate that into a distinct asset that can be maintained and updated, a la Wikipedia but with video and photos as appropriate?

silent film dialogueSilent (mobile video) movies: Media of all sorts are looking at mobile as just another content-delivery mechanism. I think it is many other things — a relationship-building tool (more on that soon) and also a time-waster. How do we use our phones most of the time? Not to make phone calls, but to (1) communicate by other means and (2) kill a few minutes while we’re waiting in line at the bank or waiting for a bus — that is when we encounter content. In those moments, most of us are not going to browse through a dozen pages on a news site or get ourselves some of that long-form journalism we hear so much about now and we’re not going to bother to get out earphones so we can watch and listen to TV news. And unless we’re assholes (like the ones on the Acela who don’t just talk on the phone but talk on the speakerphone … but that’s a rant for another day) we’re not going to play the sound on video and disturb the others on line with us. So it occurred to me that news video for mobile should resemble silent movies: big text and muted video where the video is appropriate and not just there to fill time.

Depth (with the good bits): I want to see TV give me depth — rich interviews, as Leo Laporte suggested for Katie Couric in Part I (see Tim Pool’s 18 minutes with Kim Dotcom or any Howard Stern interview hitting an hour and a half), or full video of an event, say — but I also want to get to the good bits. So what I really want is a user interface that lets us deep-link into an annotate and thus share or embed those bits. Of course, that technology exists — you can share a YouTube video from any spot — but I don’t see much video news taking advantage of it because TV producers, like print editors, want to deliver finished products. But I’ll bet that the ironic result of letting people cut to the good stuff is that more people will watch long video and more producers will make it. So let the interview go on and on. Don’t choose the sound bites for us. Let us choose them. Or let us watch the whole thing. TV no longer forces us to watch one same-size-fits-all product; it can give us choice.

What other experiments in the form of TV news can you imagine?

In Part III, I’ll look at business models, at legacy TV, and at some of the comments left on these posts.