Posts about newnews

WWGD: The news API

A throwaway line I used in a post the other day keeps repeating on me like pepperoni pizza: If you want to be big in media in the future, make yourself into an API.

I’ve been wondering what it would mean for a news organization to turn itself into an API — that is, a programming interface that lets the public use and remix and also contribute information. Or put the question another way: What would Google do (WWGD) if it ran a news organization? And I don’t mean GoogleNew but any of the reporting organizations it could afford to buy (though I’m not sure why it would): The New York Times, the LA Times, CBS News, CNN. Or, for that matter, what would YouTube do? Or Firefox? What would it mean to open up the news? I’ll start with a few answers of my own. Please add yours:

* Let people — no, encourage — people to distribute your stuff for you. You can no longer spend a huge marketing budget to get people to come to you. So go to where the people are, with the people’s help. That’s what got YouTube seen: letting people put players in their own space, which in turn drove people to discover and dive into YouTube.

* Think distributed in your business, too. That is how Google makes much of its fortune: by taking its ads to where the people are and sharing just a bit of that wealth.

* Let people — no, encourage — people to remix your stuff. They’re doing it anyway. They’re taking a paragraph from here and a quote from there — or video from here and audio from there — to tell the story from their perspective. Stop thinking of that as theft and start thinking of it as a compliment. If you’re not being remixed, you’re not part of the conversation. And the conversation is the platform of the today. So feel free to set some rules — it’s only polite to attribute and link — but then open the doors and let people create more great stuff on not only your finished product but also your raw material (your quotes, your data, your cutting-room floor). Look at the great things people have built on top of Google, YouTube, and Firefox. You want to be part of that construction project. The BBC has started down this path. So should others.

* So be a platform for news. Enable people to use you to make connections to people and information. Provide the means for them to record those school-board meetings and share the fruits. Give people tools and training to accomplish what they want to accomplish. Create networked reporting tools that let the people join together in acts of journalism (see: NewAssignment.net).

* Experiment. Start labs for news and let the people in to create and criticize alongside you. Don’t be afraid of betas and don’t be afraid of failure. You can’t be perfect. You never could.

Whither news

At the Shorenstein Center at Harvard for a 20th anniversary session on the future of news, Prof. Frederick Schauer begins by talking about news as a public good like symphonies, parks, museums, universities — things that are needed but for which there may not be a commercial model of support. I hope we are not going to start throwing in the towel on the support of journalism via its value in the marketplace. I’m not willing to do that, not by a long shot.

And now we are hearing from consultant Scott Anthony, who’s heading up the Newspaper Next project, about which I have been less than enthusiastic. He’s going through their standard spiel (don” talk about readers, talk about consumers…. arrrgggh, no we are customers… as Rebecca MacKinnon, sitting next to me, says). So I’ll keep the snark gun holstered. But suffice it to say, this is a watery challenge to this group.

He added something new to the spiel: video of the participants talking about how wonderful the process is. That’s a shameless plug. But worse, I think, it indicates their blinders. My worst fear about this thing is that it is false comfort to newspaper execs: See, we’re changing. But not enough, not nearly. Bill Marimow, ex-head of NPR news and now its ombudsman (as of this morning’s news), argues that what bloggers write is not subjected to the same scrutiny as his reporters’ work; I’d say we are all subjectd to the same scrutiny: that of the public.

I got up and said just what you could expect; so did Anthony. He said we agree that this isn’t about consumers; it is collaborative. I asked him to rate the change undertaken by the organizations in the project (as they graded the industry in the report). He said the organizations were at 30 percent of the goal before the project and that the project moved them 10-15 percent. I think we likely disagree on the definition of 100 percent. I think the requirement for change is quite radical.

: Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, gets a hand at lunch leading off with this: “I am here to today to discuss Americans as citizens rather than as consumers.”

After a tribute to the value of education — broad, not specialized education — he says, “We never teach people what to ask. And that brings me to journalism.”

He talks about the program that Carnegie and Knight funded for five journalism schools, saying that he is “not impressed with the names of the institutions; I am impressed with the content. . . You, deans of journalism, you, scholars, have a civic duty to educate our public.”

So is that the role of the journalist — to educate the public? Is the journalist qualified to do that?

Gregorian says the journalist is the intermediary and interpreter “between society and knowledge” and that the journlist is “the guardian of our democracy. . . . Yo are the ones who keep democracy alive. Economic institutions won’t.” He says that news media outlets need to be made invulnerable to economic interests. He says “we don’t encourage people to be in the truth business. We encourage people to be in the profit business.”

I am afraid we continue to try to insulate and separate the old ways of journalism from the market — from the public they are trying to serve. That is terribly dangerous.

Gregorian actually suggests making news organizations should be subject to maximum profit rates! Good lord, it that dangerous.

: Next, a panel on “traditional” news organizations. Rick Kaplan, ex-head of MSNBC and CNN, says that the public views news and information as different and values information higher. John Carroll, ex-editor of the the LA Times, says that 80-90 percent of the reporting in the country is done by reporters at mainstream organizations; don’t know how he calculates that.

I’m sorry that we’re separating “traditional” and “new” news. That, itself, is much of the problem today.

And we continue the discussion about profit margins as an evil and shareholders as the handmaidens. Carroll says that Tribune Company should have reduced its margin from 20 to 10 percent and then he would have had another $75 million to spend on journalism and make the paper bigger. Or $75 million to waste. See Michael Kinsley on the 15 editorialists. This is a hymn Carroll has been singing for sometime.

A journalist-turned-mutual-fund-manager says that what Wall Street celebrates and demand is not protecting the past but building for the future. Wall Street celebrated Google’s investment in YouTube.

Eric Alterman asks what’s wrong with the Economist model: an elitist model that charges more for a smaller audience. Apart from the irony of liberal elitism, I think he has a point: don’t try to serve everyone; be what you should be and make that work. (Yes, Alterman and I agree.)

The person I’m really liking on the panel is Robin Sproul, Washington bureau chief of ABC News, who talks about putting the World News up online in the afternoon so it can be downloaded as a wonderful thing. She pushes the panel to make news two-way. Marvin Kalb challenges that, asking her to prove that “reaching out” to the people would improve news — clearly, he’s dubious — and not sure how to do it. I’m ready to go into afib back here in the blogging gallery.

: Next came the panel I was on and having had red wine in the meantime, I’ll skip recounting it. Suffice it to say that we new-media folks were more positive about the future of news. Arianna Huffington called the argument about old and new media obsolete: “It’s like the old barroom argument: Ginger vs. Maryann. Let’s have a three-way.”

[Here’s Rebecca MacKinnon’s take. And Dave Winer joins the conversation from the other coast, via blog, looking at what comes next.]

What would you do with… the LA Times?

A favorite parlor game among fellow media blatherers these days is, “What would you do with _______?” Fill in that blank with the LA Times, any old newspaper, a TV station, a TV network, a cable network, a radio station, a cable company, a book publisher or any media company. The rules of the game are simple: When asked, sigh, shake your head, say you’re just not sure, and then come out with your personal prescription for the shrinking enterprise. The current round of the game is about the beleaguered, bedraggled LA Times.

Kit Seelye reports today that the LA Times just assigned a task force of reporters to a Manhattan Project to figure out their future. I wish them luck, but I fear they are off on the wrong if predictable foot: namely, preserving print and the past.

“We want to collect the best thinking on how to sustain the vitality and profitability of the print franchise,” Mr. Duvoisin said. “And we want to find the best thinking on how to transfer our journalism to the Web in the way most likely to grow audience and revenue.” But Mr. Loeb described the changes to come from the investigative project as a “reimagining” of the print paper in conjunction with the Web site.

I’d say it has nothing to do with the medium you’re in and everything to do with your essential value. And I find it surprising that I find nothing under “Manhattan Project” or its boss’ name at the LA Times. I’d think the first, best thing to do is to get the ideas from your public.

Meanwhile, ex LATimesman Michael Kinsley writes a column in the paper arguing that it should become part of parent Tribune Company’s national newspaper, creating a national brand with national content wrapping around local content in company’s juicy markets — Chicago, LA, Long Island, Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando. It’s a neat idea. I like everything about it but the paper part. I have long believed that there is an opportunity to start a new national newspaper — online. But I agree that sharing the national (read: commodity) content makes a lot of sense. This also focuses the paper on what it should do — local. I also applaud Kinsley for saying this:

L.A. Times journalists are not entirely blameless for the chaos and carnage. Journalists know how to stage a great hissy fit. And I’m not sure a fit was really called for in the initial staff reductions. On the editorial page (I can reveal, from the safety of hindsight) we initially had 15 people producing 21 editorials a week! So now cries that Tribune Co. has moved from cutting fat to cutting bone ring a bit hollow.

See also Doc Searls’ 10-pill prescription (and Doc is also trying to figure out what to do with the local paper near him: the Santa Barbara mess). And see smart newspaper consultant Juan Antonio Giner’s list accompanied by Juan Luis Cebrian’s. (See, I told you it was the hot game.)

I was going to take a turn at the buzzer with my to-do list but, frankly, I found myself going over the same territory I’ve paved here before — in these posts, for example, so I’ll hold that for another day. What would you do with the LA Times?

: See also a vision of the future from Shane Richmond of the Telegraph here and here.

: Matt Welch opens a blog discussion about the Manhattan Project on a Times blog.

: LATER: See Jon Fine pondering the future of the LA Times.

Missing the forest for the dead trees

The American newspaper industry has only itself to blame for the fate it faces.

I wrote that line above this weekend as the start of a post that turned out to be rather pissy, and so I’ve tried to tone it down. But when newspapers most need brave strategic action, bold reinvention, and new blood, I saw too much evidence in the last few days of the business still whining for sympathy, praying for unrealistic rescue, hopelessly grasping to hold onto old ways, and trying to blame others — mainly, stockholders — for their problems. Instead, I believe, they should be digging deep to rediscover their true value, reinvent their relationship with the public they still want to serve, and rethink the business around the new opportunities more than the challenges of the new media world.

I see the evidence of this Eeyore thinking from the industry Sunday in Richard Siklos’ York Times story about newspaper companies and Wall Street; in Jon Fine’s Business Week column about the complete pickle the Los Angeles Times is in; in a survey of newspaper executives who realize — about a decade too late — that they should have been cooperating; and mostly in a $2 million American Press Institute consultant-and-task-force industry extravaganza just released.

It’s sadly fitting that the API report, called Newspaper Next, landed as a 91-page PDF, requiring me to print it out on paper and run out of ink just to read it, with no opportunity to interact with it. I won’t say that there aren’t some good ideas in the report or in newspapers today. But as Susan Mernit says, the industry’s $2 million might have been better spent on real development instead of just blather.

Yet the real problem the report exposes is cultural inertia, the inability to think in radically new ways and to blow up old assumptions. I feared when the project was announced that they saw their job as fending off threats to newspapers rather than exploiting new opportunities for journalism. When I heard an early version of their recommendations, I warned that they were taking false comfort from making tiny steps when what is needed is an atomic bomb.

But I fear it’s worse than that. From the evidence of the report, the industry’s elders still have not broken out of their old worldview. They still look at us as an “audience” and “consumers” (or, more often now, “nonconsumers”). They believe that we want them to — this is their alliterative festival — enlighten, educate, enrich, entertain, engage, or empower us. Past a few references to the ability of the public to create content now, the greatest value they see in this trend is that we can provide them with free content to save money. They still think their core product is papers and news web sites and believe their salvation is in developing portfolios of products. For that matter, they think they are in the business of producing a product, still.

But isn’t journalism a service more than a product? And doesn’t this new world enable us to expand journalism through collaboration? What’s lost in this is the essential value that I believe news organizations provide: connecting people with information and each other. And I think what’s moved off centerstage, ironically, is journalism and the value it brings. Yes, of course, they are trying to preserve journalism by preserving the business. But they’re so busy trying to protect the “core product” and the old businesses that I don’t see them ask the real core questions: How can we expand journalism? I’ll spare you my screeds on networks and relationships.

One bit of good news is that they see the bad news; they are willing to criticize themselves: “The public is migrating away from us, happily discovering new freedoms, opportunities and choices in a new world of infinite information. . . . For newspaper companies, the very newspaper itself — its form, function, history, role in society and demanding production processes — creates blinders that make it hard to comprehend the fundamental changes happening around them.”

But the task force that made this report and many of the projects that come out of it are still insular, with very little effort to get new voices, fresh blood. One company did not seem to involve its online people in new products. Another focused on changing the paper’s own internal structure for innovations. Another redesigned its existing web site.

By contrast, WickedLocal.com in Plymouth, Mass., is a promising attempt to build through collaboration in hyperlocal. Nearby, the Boston Globe serves small advertisers by placing ads for them in Google and Yahoo; the fact that the ads aren’t in the paper or its site should give one pause but this is an attempt to serve new advertisers in new ways in an open world and so I’ll applaud the attempt. As I said above, there are some good ideas here.

And it’s good to hear the industry talking, at long last, about trying to cooperate with each other. I lived through too many hellish task force meetings in the ill-fated New Century Network industry consortium, which proved nothing but that newspapers cannot get along; they all think they’re special and they’re all quite addicted to the independence of operating as local monopolies. Now they realize that they’ve made it too difficult for advertisers to give the industry money. I fear this realization comes too late. Google has long since brilliantly exploited that weakness — to the point that Google is becoming a sales agent for newspapers and newspapers a sales agent for Google.

: Now let’s get real and go to Los Angeles, where the Times is battling for its body and soul. This is being painted too often as a fight among shareholders — in Tribune Tower, in the Chandler family, and in Wall Street — but as Siklos’ New York Times story says: “It’s tempting to paint Wall Street as the bad guy in this, but the relatively brief history of the Street and the press is more complicated.” Jon Fine’s column makes it clear that private ownership for the paper is neither likely nor a panacea.

But I say that the rescue of the LA Times has nothing whatsoever to do with ownership or share prices or EBITDAs or newsroom staff sizes. No, the only thing that will rescue this news organization formerly known as a newspaper is innovation. Make that revolution. Instead of standing up to Chicago to save heads in the old newsroom, the editor and publisher should be looking out into their communities and figuring out how to reinvent what the LA Times can be with new (and often more efficient) ways to gather and share news. They should be trying to find new ways make connections among people and enable them to do what they want to do, whether that involves information or commerce.

But it’s hard to manage and even harder to innovate in a crisis. But that’s where the American newspaper finds itself today: in the 9th inning of a game of crisis. Their Newspaper Next PDF might have been an acceptable step in a process of change in, oh, 1995. But now, I fear, it’s just a beach towel on the Titanic.

: So what the hell would I do? What would you do? In subsequent posts, I’ll suggest we explore that.

Starship Telegraph

Media Guardian’s Roy Greenslade has seen the future of The Telegraph’s newsroom and operation and he likes it. Other papers, including The Times, are starting the process of merging all media. The Telegraph is using a move into a new newsroom as the opportunity to also move the processes, culture, and job descriptions of the journalists into the future.

For the journalists, this means that there will be no split of functions between print and web. And, in addition to providing text, they will also transmit audio and video for podcasts and vodcasts. And many staff are already building their new skills, appearing on camera to read their own scripts – downloaded on to a self-operated auto-cue – and cutting their own footage after barely an hour’s training.

Oh, good, my students won’t think I’m crazy when I push the end of the monomedia journalist.

Roy also reports that they are reorganizing their output into separate products.

Instead of producing articles once a day for a printed newspaper, they are going to work to four deadlines – in the jargon, “touchpoints” – throughout the day. After what appears to have been exhaustive research of modern audience needs, the paper’s team – led by Will Lewis, the managing director (editorial) – have come up with a round-the-clock schedule of differing “products”. Mornings are for text, so the concentration will be on supplying stories online. Lunchtime into the early afternoon is for video and audio. Late afternoon, drive-time, will see the production of PDF pages, what Lewis calls the “click and carry” service. This allows people to download sets of pages and then print them out, in colour or mono, in various sizes to read on their way home. Evening is then the time for “communities”, with material aimed at the bands of enthusiasts for football, gardening , travel, whatever floats their boats.

I wonder whether that structured biorhythm will become too limiting. That is, when the big story hits, you’ll want to get it out in all forms across all media and devices. I’ll be eager to watch this.

The Telegraph also announced layoffs as part of this process. It’s a necessity of the new economic realities of news and also of the opportunity for new efficiencies. Says Roy:There is a mixture of apprehension and enthusiasm for the new regime, but several of them are also very upset because of the announcement that more than 50 people will be made redundant. . . . It is sobering to learn, even after the passing of hot metal printing 20 years ago, that many articles currently pass through 12 pairs of hands before reaching the reader. That is obviously unnecessary and a key reason for job losses.

News organizations have to reexamine their own value and put their resources there. Heavy editing can improve content, yes, but it can also harm it — homogenizing it, dulling it down, slowing it up – and it’s expensive.

Entrepreneurial journalism

In the middle of Mark Glaser’s good consideration of the Carnegie-Knight News 21 project, a year into it, he makes this intriguing suggestion:

So why not take the $6 million and create real new-media incubator businesses? Stanford University helped create Yahoo and Google, but those companies didn’t come from the journalism school. Perhaps the journalism schools could team with computer programming departments to create hybrid sites that combine the best technology of sites such as Digg or YouTube with the editorial standards that come from journalism.

We need that kind of innovation and daring in the industry — and it’s not coming from the industry.

This is why I added a course/lab in entrepreneurial interactive journalism into the CUNY curriculum; I’ll be teaching it next fall. The idea is that students will come up with and flesh out ideas for new businesses or products. I’m hoping that some of them may even come to life. But I’d like suggestions from you all on how to make this work, how to make it more than just prototypes, which journalism schools pump out regularly. What can bring the kind of entrepreneurial drive to journalism and media that Mark notes at Stanford around technology and media?

Mark’s story continues:

Ford, a fellow at Northwestern, told me he thinks journalism schools should be a place for innovation and experimentation as they live outside the commercial media world.

“In many industries, universities are the breeding ground for the cutting edge,” he said. “Whether it be science, industry, business or engineering, often university research can foster new development in a given industry. This has not always been the case in journalism schools. More often than not, students in J-schools are being trained on outdated equipment, with outdated technology, with the ultimate focus on theory and basic skills. This training can produce good, even great journalists — an admirable goal — but it does little to move journalism forward in innovation.

“Few are the media organizations with the resources and time to commit to experimenting with new ways of reporting and disseminating content. News21 is an experiment in itself, a chance for the time and resources to be committed for the sole purpose of trying something new. Whether our work resonates or not will be evident in coming weeks. In the end, it was a daring experiment, and will be worth its effort in lessons learned, if nothing else.”

I should add that there are elements of this at the Northwestern Medill program. I worked with Rich Gordon and the students there on the GoSkokie hyperlocal project at the same time that they created new sections for the Lee newspapers. Both projects, are sadly, history and I think that may be because they depended on big, old media companies to nurture them. That is no longer necessary. And I’d say it’s also not desirable, for big new ideas — Yahoo, Google, MySpace, Flickr, About, YouTube, Wikipedia… — could grow bigger faster on their own.

For the first time since William Randolph Hearst, journalists can think and act independently and entrepreneurially. So how do we help them do that?

LATER: Two minutes after posting this, Rich Gordon gave me the good news that I am wrong about the continuing life of those two projects: But your post is wrong that both projects are history. Lee killed the print property but kept it alive online. And it’s really great news that, as Rich says, “the Skokie Library took the GoSkokie ball and ran with it” at SkokieTalk, crediting the Medill project as the inspiration.

: AND: Terry Heaton and I seize on the same paragraph.

How to improve newspaper sites

The Bivings Report — the folks who studied what web 2.0 features newspaper sites are and aren’t using — suggests nine ways to improve those sites functionally and it’s a good list. Among the suggestions: use tags, provide RSS, kill registration, link out to and partner with local bloggers.

Talk of the town

I’m sorely disappointed in Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker about “journalism without journalists.”

I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Instead, Lemann pits professional journalist v. blogger — as if any more ink need be spilled on that putative battleground — and sets up his easy strawmen to tear them down.

His strawman king: that bloggers believe they will replace journalists. I don’t know a single blogger who says that with a straight face. But that is what professional journalists — fewer and fewer of them, actually — think they hear bloggers say and so they snipe back with very straight and sometimes red faces: ‘Yeah, you and who else?’

His next strawman is that some blogging is not journalism or is bad journalism and thus all blogging is not journalism because it is not performed by journalists. He points to some quaint examples of human speech in blogs — more on those in a moment — and dismisses it because it is not institutional and profound. Well, I can point to lots of allegedly professional journalism — somebody paid for it — in lots of newspapers — like the wee daily near me — and on lots of TV and radio stations in this country that is folksy, chatty, uninformative, badly written, and often utter crap. Does that mean that all professional journalism is crap? Of course not. It’s a lazy argument. And while I’m at it, dare I say that I can dig out lots of Talk of the Town pieces and letters from correspondents over the years in The New Yorker that did little or nothing to inform the nation and were written in a once-anonymous, faux folksiness that tried to simulate the humanity and real life you hear in the excerpts Lemann mocks.

The strawman he presents at the start of his essay is that bloggers think they are all inventing something new and that they are really just descendants of the pamphleteers who spread their words with opinion and agenda at the time of America’s founding, long before modern institutional journalism was invented. Stipulated. Says Lemann:

They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

I don’t know a blogger who does not agree with that — at least writer-by-writer, if not regarding the medium as a whole. Bloggers proudly point to the pamphleteers as parents. They don’t say they are new against the history of conversation and publication, information and advocacy. Bloggers say they are new when set against the current conceit of institutional journalism that it is objective and dispassionate and is the steward of truth and trust — a kind of journalism that Lemann himself concedes is relatively new. Says Lemann:

In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against–journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses–is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man.

But he is a strawman of your making.

The next strawman is me: I am held up as an example of unrestrained blog snarkiness and for that he found quite the juicy tossed tomato, a snitfit I had in 2003 when The New York Times’ John Markoff trotted out his own strawman (one I’d thought to be extinct by now) about blogs being the next CB radio. Markoff also said that he didn’t need a blog because The Times is a blog. I fisked that interview with Markoff and looking back — this came out two weeks after the first Bloggercon — I have to say I still enjoy it. Lemann didn’t even quote my nastiest line: “You know, institutions worry about letting reporters blog without editing but they don’t worry about letting a jackass like this out without a leash.” Opinionated, blunt voices scare big-J Journalists. But we don’t always yell. Only when provoked.

And finally, if there’s any hay left, there’s Lemann’s belief that journalism’s standards were set by the professionals. I’d say they are still being set by the public who have always decided every day whom to believe and whom to trust — only now, we get to hear their decision process.

So Lemann continues to paint this as a fight: bloggers v. journalists. He continues to try to define journalists as the professionals, to define the act by the person who performs it (and, implicitly, the training he has) rather than by the act itself. He continues to try to limit journalism to journalists, wanting in his last line for reporters (note, he didn’t say reporting) to move to citizens’ journalism.

I so wish I had seen him instead imagine the possibilities for news when journalists and bloggers join to work together in a network made possible by the internet. I wish he had seen journalism expanded way past the walls of newsrooms and j-schools to gather and share more information for an informed society. I wish he had used his lofty perch to see beyond the horizon to a new future for journalism and the students he — and I — are teaching now.

But no. Pity.

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