Posts about journalism

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.

Journalism Inside®

I wonder whether we should be teaching journalists to embed themselves and their abilities into the world rather than always making the world come to them. Thinking out loud…

The other day, when Amazon peeved me by suddenly trying to sell me software — who has bought a box of software in years? — it occurred to me: After software left store shelves, demand for the programmers who make it has only grown. So why, as newspapers, magazines, and books leave shelves, is there not more demand for the journalists who make them?

Companies are clamoring to hire more programmers and investors are dying to back what they do. Everybody wants more code inside their endeavors. So imagine an economy in which companies and investors want journalism inside: “We need to get us some journalists!”

It’s not quite as insane as it sounds if we rethink what a journalist does. Journalists and programmers aren’t really so different. In the the research on innovation and news we commissioned at the Tow-Knight Center, Nick Diakopoulos notes their similarity: “One of journalism’s primary raisons d’être is in gathering, producing, and disseminating information and knowledge…. What is perhaps most interesting about these processes is that they can, in theory, all be executed either by people, or by computers.” Nick’s point is not that technology would replace journalists but instead that technology provides new opportunities for news.

Programmers and journalists create similar value — or they could. Each makes sense of information. Technology brings order to the flow of information; journalists ask the questions that aren’t answered in that flow. Each brings new abilities to people — functionality (in software terms) or empowerment (in journalistic terms). But programmers don’t produce products so much as they produce ability: your ability to get what you want. Shouldn’t journalism act like that? Shouldn’t we teach them to?

Imagine a perpendicular universe in which an organization or community says: “We need someone to help make sense of this information, who can add context to it or find and fill in missing pieces or present it in a way that will make sense to people — as a narrative or a visualization. We need to get us a journalist.”

It so happens that our entrepreneurial journalism students just had the treat of hearing from Shane Snow of the startup Contently. He is offering a service to companies — brands in particular — that are indeed asking the question above. Brands, haven’t you heard, are becoming media. Instead of placing their ads around others’ content, brands are putting content around their ads. Contently lets them search its 4,000 writers’ profiles and use its reputation system to find the right writer or community manager or video maker or infographic whiz. Contently also offers to manage these tasks.

Isn’t that just PR, working for a brand? No, Shane says, because Contently provides writers to make content an audience will value instead of a message a company wants to get out. Messaging is marketing. This is more analogous to the soap opera model — or the show Northern Exposure: P&G underwrote those shows so it would have a place to put its ads. Now more brands are doing that on the web. YouTube, too, is underwriting the creation of independent content — without owning it — just so more people will have more good stuff to watch there. Advertising still subsidizes content but the chicken and the egg are trading places.

But funny you should mention PR. Its role, too, changes. In What Would Google Do? I spoke with Rishad Tobaccowala, strategist for Publicis, and we thought of a reverse world in which public relations exists to represent the public to the company, not the other way around (a professionalization of Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management). We now see companies looking for that skill. They call it community management but that’s a misnomer unless you mean it in Doc’s context: that the community manages the company (the company doesn’t manage the community).

As I wrote this, I got a lucky visit from Kevin Marks, now of Salesforce, ex of Apple, Google, and Technorati, who teaches me much about technology. He posed the programmer-v-journalist comparison another way, arguing that each models the world, one with algorithms, one with narrative (and each faces the problem of “imperfect mapping”). He called it the tension between the storyteller and the builder.

That’s a very telling contrast for journalism schools. Many of our students want to build things, which we encourage, but we constantly struggle with balancing technology and tools vs. journalism and its skills in the time we have to teach. There’s also a tension regarding what they build: journalists pride themselves on being storytellers but is that all they should build? They might build visualizations of data — which, yes tells a story, sans narrative — but shouldn’t they also build tools that enable the public to dig into its own information (see: Texas Tribune) and platforms that let them share their information?

These new opportunities have led some to believe we should turn out the mythical journalist-coder, the hacking hack who does it all. I am not so sure that unicorn lives in nature. Yes there are some; it’s possible they exist. But I don’t think that journalists must become coders to take advantage of new technologies. They need to know how to work with the coders, how to spec and modify and use these tools. They need to understand and exploit the opportunities.

They also need a different culture. Rather than seeing ourselves as the creators (and owners) of products (content), shouldn’t journalists — like coders — see themselves as the providers of services, as the builders of platforms, as the agents of empowerment for others? That’s how developers see themselves. They build things, yes, but no longer shrink-wrapped. They build tools people use; they add value to information they produce. Journalists, in addition, have seen themselves speaking for the little guy but as Kevin Marks put it to me, that role becomes subsumed by the network when the little guys can speak for themselves. Still, there’s value in using new tools to help them do that. Is that a new journalism or is that a new PR? Gulp! Depends on who gets there first.

So where do journalists fit in in the world? And what do we teach them?

Well, we still start by teaching what my dean calls the eternal verities: accuracy, fairness, completeness. Implicit in that is a sense of service and given the rise of the network we need to consider what our fundamental service is.

We teach them to gather, make sense of, present, and most importantly supplement information through reporting — but there are now so many new ways to do that, so now we don’t just teach reporting but also data skills.

We teach them to build — yes, stories, but now in more forms, and also more than stories: tools and platforms.

We also teach them to build businesses. We teach them sustainability.

We teach them to go out into their communities, but now I say we need to make them see that they are a part of and not separate from those communities, no longer envisioning ourselves at the center, gathering everyone’s attention, but instead at the edge, serving their needs, providing communities elegant organization. This is a difficult skill to teach. Since starting what we call interactive journalism (not “new media”) at CUNY, I’ve struggled with finding ways for the students to have a public with whom to interact. One way we’ve done it is The Local with The New York Times, but we need more ways.

If we consider the programmer worldview, then we need to teach journalists how to fit in to the world differently, to spread their skills and value (and values) out into other enterprises, institutions, and communities rather than making the world come to us for journalism: Need some reporting, some editing, some sense-making, some empowerment, some organization, some storytelling, some media making…? “We need to get us some journalism!”

Now, of course, the journalists will worry that when working in the employ of others, they lose the independence that their journalistic institutions afforded them (so long as those companies were rich monopolies). That is well worth the worry. But again, consider the programmer who brings her skills to an enterprise but still must decide whether the enterprise is worthy of them. Consider, too, how programmers work in open-source to spread their value — and grow it — among anyone who sees fit to use it. They don’t own coding the way we thought we owned the news. They spread it.

Shouldn’t we spread journalism out beyond our walls as not only a skill set but also a worldview, getting more people to see and create a demand for the value of accurate and reliable information (“trust is the new black,” says Craig Newmark), organized information, context, and so on? Shouldn’t we want to embed journalism the way programmers embed code? Then we wouldn’t just teach journalists to go to work for news organizations — or, for that matter, start them — but also to organize news everywhere? Whether and how to do that, I’m just beginning to wonder….

/thinkingoutloud

Piracy v. do not track

Consider the similarities between piracy and do not track. They’re greater than you think, for both reduce value for content creators. And both are excuses for internet regulation.

In piracy, a content company sets business rules: You must pay for my product; if you take it without paying for it, you are robbing me of value.

With do not track, an advertising-supported content company sets business rules: You will get my content for free because I will serve you ads and I will increase their efficiency, performance, and value by targeting them to your interests and behavior; if you block the cookies that make that possible, you are robbing me of value.

The difference between the two is that there is a furor over piracy as theft but, quite to the contrary, there is a rush to enable the blocking of ad tracking as a virtue.

If you listen to The Wall Street Journal, Apple was a good guy for blocking by default third-party cookies (ask what Apple gets out of that). And it’s good news that technology companies just agreed to implement a do-not-track button on browsers.

There is nothing sinister about third-party ad tracking cookies. They’ve been used since very early in the history of the web when General Motors, for example, insisted in serving its own ads on content sites so it could verify what was bought and optimize its targeting. Without that ability, many large advertisers will refuse to buy ads and the value of ad-supported media could plummet — just at a time when we are concerned about how we will support news media.

Odd that a media company wouldn’t be crying foul. The Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, cries bloody murder over piracy — going so far as to accuse Google of theft — but his paper crusades for blocking tracking, claiming it is a violation of privacy (though in most cases, the cookies have no personally identifiable information and so it’s hard to justify a moral panic based on their use).

Murdoch’s News Corp is, at its core, an entertainment company, thus a paid-content company. The ad-supported portion of his P&L is not only small but is causing him much agita as his journalists in the U.K. are accused of violating laws of the nation and the profession.

I’m not building a conspiracy theory. I’m just pointing to the priorities that emerge when one follows the money.

So what about the rest of the industry — the media, advertising, and technology industries, that is? Oh, they blew it. They were never transparent enough about what technology they were using, what data they were gathering, and why — not to mention the benefits that accrued to their users (i.e., free content). That opened the door for other parties — privacy scare-mongers, competitors for our media attention, and government regulators — to demonize the mysterious cookie and stir up this moral panic and paranoia. The M.A.T. industries have only themselves to blame.

In the EU, government regulators have decreed that sites must obtain opt-in permission to set cookies. In the US, the industry agreement today announced is an attempt to forestall government regulation with self-regulation.

But don’t be too quick to celebrate as if these are consumer victories. I believe the EU dictum could lead to (a) a much poorer web experience as we are bombarded with boxes to tick and (b) poorer media companies and thus (c) the possibility of less free media and more pay walls. And in the U.S., it has been shown that one can whip up an anti-net hysteria and bring even giant technology companies to expose their soft underbellies. Each leads to more threats of regulation of the net. That’s what I fear.

It is time for technology companies especially to adopt radical transparency of how they operate so they can’t find themselves in gotcha moments when the hysterical “discover” something they’ve been doing all along. Under such openness, it is also time for them to learn that doing sneaky things will not benefit them. And it is also time for the media, advertising, and technology companies to start fighting back against accusers’ misinformation and explain the truth of what they are doing and how we benefit. That is transparency’s dividend.

LATER: By the way, this post was inspired and informed by a discussion last night on This Week in Google, in which Leo Laporte said he was grateful that I was going so far that I was making him look moderate.

One more point from that discussion: We all practice blocking ads when we fast-forward through commercials on our DVRs. And the industry adapted and still prospers (for now). That’s what may happen here. But one should still recognize the impact of one’s actions — whether skipping or blocking — on the economics of what is provided. And one difference is that we have to skip each commercial manually (especially since, as Leo pointed out, a company that provided easy 30-second skipping was hounded out of business as a result). In the case of do not track, especially government-mandated opt-in — that is wholesale devaluing of advertising in a medium.

Profitable news

One of the most controversial things I have said (you’re welcome for that straight line) is that I insist my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY build only for-profit businesses. When I said that at a recent symposium for teachers of entrepreneurial journalism, I thought some of the gasping participants would tar-and-feather me.

I’m not against not-for-profit, charitably supported journalism any more than I’m against pay walls. I, too, crunch granola (and sell books). But I do not believe that begging for money from foundations, the public, or especially government is the solution to journalism’s problems. And I am certain that there is not enough charity in the nation to support the journalism it needs. Lately we are seeing too much evidence that the siren call of not-for-profit journalism seduces news organizations away from sustainability, survival, and success (more on the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen in a moment).

I insist on teaching our students the higher discipline and the greater rigor of seeking to create profitable enterprises. I also believe they are more likely to build better journalistic products, services, and platforms if they are accountable to the marketplace. When class starts, many students invariably talk about what they want to do. In my best imitation of a gruff old-timer, I tell them nobody gives a shit what they want to do, save perhaps their mothers. They should care about what the public — their customers — want and need them to do. They need to care about the market if they have any hope of the market sustaining them. That is why they start every term talking with the public they hope to serve. They always come back with surprises.

Of course, the market, too, can be corrupting. I’m tempted to use Rupert Murdoch as the best exhibit of the argument, though in that case, it’s hard to tell which came first, the rabid chicken or the rotten egg. In the long run, cynically giving the public only what it thinks it wants will not deliver value and will fade like the fad it must be. I have that much faith in the market.

And, of course, we can point to many valuable and well-sustained not-for-profit news enterprises: NPR is the best we have, but as its former CEO Vivian Schiller has said, it is very much run like a business, complete with advertisers (pardon me, [cough] underwriters). Texas Tribune is doing a brilliant job of bringing in the support needed to continue its brilliant work (though I argued with its founder and funder, John Thornton, a venture capitalist, that he’d serve the news industry better by demonstrating profitable models). Pro Publica is already a national treasure (though let’s note that it had to get a grant from the Knight Foundation just to figure out how to diversify its funding beyond its original patron, mortgage man Herb Sandler).

But there are other less shining examples. Now we turn to the Chicago News Cooperative, which just announced its closing. It found itself too dependent on a foundation (MacArthur), a customer/benefactor (The New York Times), not to mention the IRS (which needs to clarify the rules for not-for-profit news). Dan Sinker argues that it never met is promise of building news with the community.

Then there’s the Bay Citizen, which ran through $11.4 million in 2010 [see this comment for a correction] before collapsing last year; it will merge in still-uncertain terms with the better-run, more penurious Center for Investigative Reporting. When the Bay Citizen started with a pot of cash from investor Warren Hellman, I remember the San Francisco Chronicle complaining that this non-market player could unfairly compete with the paper and hasten its demise, an unintended consequence that didn’t come to pass mainly because the Bay Citizen was to terribly run. Non-market entities often are.

I recently judged a contest for an international journalism organization that received a large grant from a very large corporation to fund journalism startups and — here’s why I’m naming neither — I was appalled at the complete lack of thought that went into sustainability and responsible fiscal management in every one of the proposals. I urged the organization to not give away one penny and to start over. It didn’t quite do that.

The problem is that journalists don’t know shit about business. Culturally, they don’t want to. I often hear from journalists who are downright hostile to corporations and even capitalism not because they’re commies but because they believe they’re above it all (there is the root, I believe, of much of their cynicism about Google and other large technology companies). As I’ve said here before, when I came up through journalism’s academy, I was taught that mere contact with business was corrupting. I’ve had bosses scold me for considering the business of journalism. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I could not protect my baby from the expensive idiocy of my business-side colleagues because I didn’t have the biz cred. I vowed that would not happen again. That’s why I insisted on learning the business of journalism.

That is why I insisted on teaching the business of journalism. For we journalists have proven to be terrible, irresponsible stewards of the craft and its value to the nation. Feeding at the teat of monopolies, we grew fat and complacent and snotty about the markets we were to serve. We wasted so much money on duplicative, commodity coverage for the sake of our egos. We were willfully ignorant of how our industry operated and thus how it is dying, making us complicit in its death. We have only ourselves to hold responsible.

And that is why I so respect my friend John Paton, a newsman’s newsman who learned the business of journalism and is taking responsibility for its fate, as head of Digital First Media (where I am an advisor), which now runs the second-largest newspaper group in the U.S. John does not have the answers but he does have the questions and he’s not afraid to challenge executives in our industry with them. He’s willing to disrupt and experiment and learn. And he’s willing to teach what he learns. “Crappy newspaper executives,” he just said, “are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than any changes wrought by the Internet.”

Yes, it’s not just not-for-profit thinking that’s dangerous to journalism. It’s the unprofitable thinking of for-profit news companies. That is why, again, I insist on holding students and the industry they’ll lead to the more diligent standard of true sustainability. That means profitability. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Journalism via jokes

Tonight I redeemed the greatest Christmas present from my son, Jake: tickets to see The Daily Show taping with him. It was fun and funny. But even better, it inspired me as a journalist.

I left the studio determined to teach a course in journalism via jokes. (I’d call it Truth Through Humor, but that sounds like an Orwellian sitcom [starring John Goodman as Big Brother]).

Jon Stewart regularly demurs when we journalists try to drag him into our sad fraternity. Well, bullshit. His interview tonight with Republican Sen. Jim DeMint was journalism at its best.

Stewart has a worldview. He’s in favor of civil discourse. He’s in favor of America. He’s in favor of government when it adds value and security to citizens’ lives. He does his homework. He knows his facts. He asks hard questions and won’t accept easy answers. He pressed DeMint — civilly and smartly and comically and again and again — on the senator’s divisive rhetoric in the book he was there to plug. He pressed the studio audience to be civil to DeMint. He left trying to find common ground for a discussion about better government and a better nation.

The interview went on 20 minutes or maybe even 30 minutes to fill a seven-minute slot. Stewart wasn’t filling time; he was asking questions. The remainder, Stewart said, will end up on the net (I’ll link when it’s up) and I urge you — or at least my journalism students — to watch it as an object lesson in interview that try to get somewhere (most don’t).

There’s a larger lesson here about jokes as journalism. So next, I urge you to listen to Ethan Zuckerman’s lecture on cute cats and revolution on the wonderful CBC series Ideas. Ethan talks about humor as a means to get around censorship. I listened to his talk a day after hearing Richard Gingras, now head of Google News, talking at a symposium on entrepreneurial journalism organized by Dan Gillmor at Arizona State about how difficult it is for algorithms to recognize humor.

I hope algorithms never understand humor. If algorithms succeed, then censors and tyrants will use them to find it and quash humor. If algorithms succeed at creating jokes, then Hollywood will hire geeks to build virtual Stewarts, Sterns, and Lettermen: plastic action figures. Then humor will lose its humanity and credibility. No, humor is hard. May it ever stay so.

At the end of a meeting about trying to scale fact-checking that we held with Craig Newmark at CUNY, we decided that as a followup, we should hold an event on facts as entertainment: fact-checking as a game and truth a la Stewart at amusement. When did truth become boring and dutiful and dull in journalists’ hands? In Stewart’s hands, comedy is truth, truth is journalism, ergo comedy can be journalism. His is.

Want a class in that? If only it could be taught by Prof. Stewart.

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

A new M.A. in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY

We got some big news at CUNY this week: We are approved to offer what we believe is the first MA in entrepreneurial journalism.

Last spring, we already taught our first class of full-time entrepreneurial journalism students, awarding certificates. But now we also have the ability to award MA degrees to students who complete the CUNY J-school program plus a fourth entrepreneurial semester. This comes under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY.

My colleague Jeremy Caplan and I teach four courses: MBA in a box in the media context (Jeremy’s qualified to teach that; I’m not); a course in disruption in media (that’s what I teach); the incubator as a course (the core of the curriculum is the students’ development of their own businesses and for that we the faculty and mentors meet individually with them and meet as a group to compare issues, problems, and solutions); and a technology course (this semester, we plan to work closely with General Assembly for some of that curriculum and are bringing in Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon to work with students). In addition, the students do a project as an apprenticeship with a New York startup.

We are about to admit our 15+ students for the spring term, most of them professionals seeking the certificate (and in some cases a second career) with some students from our regular journalism program (they’ll be the first to earn the MA in entrepreneurial journalism).

This comes right after the fifth annual jurying for our regular entrepreneurial course, offered in the MA in journalism, in which a dozen students created their own business plans and a jury awarded seed funding from a Tow-Knight grant.

At CUNY, we are constantly changing our curriculum, updating it as reality in media shifts, as we learn new lessons, and as we see what works and doesn’t work in helping students reach their goals. That can be unsettling for both students and faculty but there’s no choice about change.

This week, coincidentally, I was contacted by two searches for journalism school deans (it appears to be open season on the species as there are even more of these jobs open). I’m not going for and certainly doubt I would be offered either, but I did offer recommendations to one of them and that caused me to take a look at the curricula for various journalism programs in the nation. There are some neat new courses and methods (e.g., via @underoak, UNC’s master’s in technology and communication). But what struck me about journalism curricula is how little some of the courses appeared to have changed, even now. What does it mean to teach magazines these days?

Jeremy and our colleagues Peter Hauck and Jennifer McFadden sat down last week and played the game of 52-card-pickup we regularly play at CUNY, rethinking what we’re teaching and how. For example, we are going to emphasize prototyping and project management more than we had. In the admissions process for this spring, we not only wanted a diverse group of students and perspectives but also of businesses, from hyperlocal content businesses to disruptive platforms. In the other arms of the Tow-Knight center, we are supporting research in new opportunities and needs in journalism to help guide students and the industry as they propose new ideas to fit new needs. And with our growing incubator, we are bringing in new services to help both students’ and outside entrepreneurial ventures.

Of course, elsewhere at CUNY, change continues apace. For example, my interactive colleague Sandeep Junnarkar and others have been shepherding into the curriculum new courses on data visualization and a modular course in coding for journalism. We find ourselves constantly managing tension between journalism and tools (always fighting to make sure the former is not overcome by the latter).

Getting a new degree in entrepreneurial journalism is just one milepost in a constant process of trying to stay an inch ahead of the snowball. I’m proud and grateful to work with an administration — Deans Steve Shepard, Judy Watson, and Steve Dougherty — and with a faculty who support this endless creative tsuris.

We teach change.

Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing — and perhaps turning away — the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I’ve been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I’ve seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don’t use these sites much. That’s nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader — and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it’s that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it’s still sponsoring — that is, giving a free ride — to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don’t even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site…..

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships — deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.