Posts about newsarchitecture

The problem with newspaper blogs is . . .

. . . they are on newspaper sites.

I’ve come to argue that newspapers should not be big brands but big collections of brands.

If I develop a relationship with a blog, I don’t go searching for it through the many layers of an adventure game that is newspaper-site navigation. I don’t treat a newspaper as a portal to my blog relationships. I don’t recommend a brand and address that has too many dots and too many slashes in it. I mostly find posts via links from trusted peers or through RSS subscriptions. Blogs spread not because they reside on huge sites but because they have relationships with people, because the are viral. And the way to be viral is to live at the same level as other linkers: blog to blog, brand to brand, person to person.

So I think that if newspapers are going to blog, they should have lots of blogs at lots of addresses, lots of people creating lots of brands. And this also means that they must be written in the human voice of the person, not the cold voice of the institution. And, while we’re at it, this means that they must join in and link to other conversations; that is they only way they will spread and grow, not because they live six clicks deep into a giant newspaper site. We are seeing the links and the voice. But the architecture remains a problem.

Choire Sicha at Gawker, a man who knows his blogs, highlights the problem at newspapers as he points to their ghettoization into blog sections, as if we come in thinking, ‘hmmh, I feel like some blogs today — a little sports, then some gossip and maybe some politics too,’ as if we are really at a Mongolian barbecue saying, ‘I have a hankering for some chicken and pork and sprouts and put that sweet sauce on it, please.’ It only highlights the broken nature of the newspaper navigation and the portal. Well, Choire would argue, I think, that it’s not broken: We still come to a newspaper and newspaper site wanting to get sports and business. But we don’t come wanting blogs. We either will or won’t build a direct relationship with those blogs and to do so we need to get to them directly.

Architecturally, this returns to the idea that news sites shouldn’t be sites at all but larger, looser networks and not just of stuff they make but also — who can afford to make it all — stuff others make. It also points to the problem of presuming that sites can and should still consider themselves destinations; this, I argued, is one of the lessons of the death of Timesselect.

Now having said all this, I am happy to see that newspaper bloggers are understanding the need for a new voice and a new relationship with others. Simon Dumenco at Ad Age pointed this out in a column that is now behind a pay wall (Hey, Ad Age, can’t you learn a lesson from the Times on this?). One of the best examples of the new newspaper blog voice is Saul Hansell at the Times’ Bits blog. He gets personal and opinionated and is certainly breezier than his print persona and he also makes artistic use of the link to bloggers’ conversations and competitors’ news.

I’m also happy to see that the Times doesn’t think it has to produce all this bloggy goodness itself; that’s why it made a deal with Freakonomics. But the mistake, I’ve argued, was bringing Freakonomics into the Times’ site and navigation. I think that instead, it should have made it part of a larger Times network of content and ads. I should add that Prezvid, my other blog, was brought into syndication deals with the Washington Post and now This slurping-up of the content occurred for another reason (media lawyers’ fear of the copyright questions raised by news video on YouTube). And may be the idea that Prezvid’s posts can exist in four or five places is just a preview of a more distributed architecture for blogs themselves.

Still, I think Choire has important advice for newspapers. The blogs may be getting more plentiful and they are getting better. But now they’re ready to move out of the house and find homes of their own.

When the comes from the people – live. A new architecture of news.

Again, I have no doubt that in a very short time, when the next big news story breaks with reports coming from the scene and from witnesses, it will be live. Video, audio, photos, and text can and will come to the web as the news happens from the people there and we will see it live.

I keep thinking about the implications of this as I watch the coverage on big media, relying on witness-reporters and as I read the students’ own news coverage and as I read Robin Hamman’s most thoughtful post about the producers and reporters who descended on the blogs of the students who were reporting what was happening, begging them for contact and interviews. It begs questions about the very architecture of news.

So imagine if Jamal Albaughouti’s seminal camera-phone video/audio of the shooting yesterday had come in live, as technology now allows. How would it be seen? Yesterday, he uploaded it to CNN. But how, live, would he get the attention of the closed infrastructure of a newsroom? How would that get on the air? How would they know and verify what was happening? It’s hard to imagine how newsrooms could reorganize themselves to accept such news as it happens. It’s hard to figure out how those news organizations market to people who do not know they will be witnesses to major news, telling them to come to them with the news they see when it happens (though, clearly, CNN’s marketing with with Albaughouti). And it’s less hard to see how we will know where to turn to find such live coverage (we’ll do that at the speed of links, which is not instantaneous; it will cause a lag in the news).

And so I don’t think it will work to feed this live news through the big news organizations, exclusively. I see that in Hamman’s post, with scores of reporters each trying to get their piece of the student’s voice when, as Robin sagely realizes, the student’s voice and account is already online for all to see, on a LiveJournal blog. The right thing to do is to point to that, to quote it, to link to it.

This yields a new architecture of news, a distributed architecture. It’s what is bound to happen. Those students put their news up on their own sites because they have them and because the people they care about know their addresses and will read them. I’m surprised that Albaughouti’s video didn’t go up on YouTube (I sat next to a YouTube exec last night on a panel at NAB and he said, “it will”). I have no doubt that people will soon have their own live YouTubes/blog pages where they broadcast what they are doing at the moment: Twitter Video. We will all be Justin.TV. And sometimes, what we broadcast or blog will be news, big news, live news.

So what is the relationship of big, old, centralized media to this new, small, decentralized architecture of news? They need to link to reporting at its source. They will not have the time to get exclusive interviews and feeds. It’s live. They will try, as they should, to confirm the authenticity of what we see, but they won’t have the time or means to do that, either, so they will have to issue caveats and we, in the audience, will have to understand those caveats just as we understand today that everything we see from a live report — from the Iraq war or the West Virginia mine disaster — is live and may not be correct.

And so the key skills in a newsroom will not be to get reporters to the scene — that will come later, after the news happens — but to have antennae up to listen and find news reports as they happen, as people link to what’s happening. You can’t possibly have enough reporters, editors, producers to do that on your own. You need to have lots of friends who’ll alert you: When I put up a link here to something I find compelling — or even embed and broadcast it here, live — will I also alert CNN? I don’t know. Would you? Do you have such a friendly relationship with CNN? Maybe that will happen but that, too, is insufficient. So you need to use every tool that’s available — the Technorati of the live video web — to see what’s happening in the world.

This isn’t about creating one serial broadcast show. It’s also going to be about creating a window onto the news in the world as it happens from no limit of witnesses with the cameras and tools to share news as it happens. There is a role for big media, incumbent or new, in that: to discover, organize, and vet it. That is a vastly different and vastly expanded vision of how news will come to us. And it brings no end of additional implications about our ability to know what is true and what is not as it happens.

So now take recent news events and imagine them shared live, by the witnesses at the scene. Would such coverage of Katrina have spread better information or more misinformation? Would live 7/7 coverage from mobile phone to mobile phones have saved lives or caused panic?

I have said before that since 9/11, I have carried a camera with me every day. There were scenes from the disaster that live only in my memory; I could not share them. But more important, I think it is important to get the street-level, eye-witness perspective of the news. The world saw 9/11 from rooftops a few miles away: It was gigantic, beyond human scale. It looked very different on Church Street. What if many of us had shared what we saw as we saw it? How would our view of that event have changed?

Live, distributed news gathering and sharing will change the news more radically than we can yet imagine.

Frequent crowdsourcing awards

Springwise, one of those consultancies that makes a fortune spotting trends for clients, is recruiting trend finders from around the world and offering them prizes: eight trends spotted and used gets you an iPod Shuffle. They write about “crowd clout” and then use it; smart. Not a bad idea for newspapers. Except some of the stuff they are spotting comes via blogs and what do the bloggers who originally found or wrote about the trend get in the deal?

I’d say Springwise would be wiser even wiser to keep track of the sources and offer them rewards. Imagine if out of nowhere, you got an email from them saying they’d discovered three new trends thanks to you and in appreciation, would you like a DVD? They’d get good will, promotion, more trendspotters, and more trends. Newspapers would get surprise promotion and more news.

This is about turning around the usual media equation: Instead of asking the outsiders in, you turn things inside-out and go to them.

The platform paradox

Six Apart is grappling with the inherent conflict in providing a platform (MovableType) and a service (TypePad). A most unhappy post from Suw Charman dissecting with a rusty scalpel SixApart marketing messages versus her experience with the company — and a defensive response from the company and a response, in turn, from its chief competitor — make this clear. And I think there are lessons in this for other platform companies — potentially even for the news industry as, I believe, journalism begins to look more like a platform .

I saw this conflict coming back in May 2004, when I wrote a post arguing:

You can’t be a software company and a service company under one roof, for you will inevitably end up competing with your customers. And that will not work. So I suggest that SixApart, the software company, divest TypePad, the service company, so that each can serve its customers optimally and so that each can become as profitable as possible.

The issue then was the limitations Six Apart put on Movable Type, the platform software, so as not to enable others to compete with Typepad, its service company using that same software. The issue today, in Charman’s post, is distraction: Who is being served first and best, platform or hosting customers? Doesn’t matter how the problem erupts, the cause is the same. There is an essential channel conflict here when you want to provide a platform for all to use and then when you use it yourself.

I said all this back when then in my blog post and I said it again when I advised one of the VCs who invested in (without pay, sadly). They could have put the platform and the service in one company but I advised strongly — among others, obviously — that they should be separate. The platform now resides with the open-source and, the VC-backed and for-profit hosting service, is merely one of any number of companies that use that software. The fact that is open-source has the benefit of motivating a community of developers to contribute to the platform. Back in 2004, again, I wrote:

I’ve seen other companies go through this and the answer is either to drop one line of business or to divest. I suggest divesting. Then SixApart, the software business, will come up with licenses that serve its customers well and will sell as many as possible. Rather then having your entire customer base scream in protest — as they are now — they would beat a path to your door to pay for your mousetrap (whenever your customers are screaming in protest, you know you are doing something very wrong). Meanwhile, TypePad — a licensee of Movable Type software — would offer no-hassle and reasonably priced hosting and would compete with other licensees. Competition would lead to more business for the two companies and happier customers and probably market dominance for Movable Type and its standards (e.g., TypeKey and Trackbacks). . . .

There is another advantage to divesting: The management of each company will not be distracted as the management of this one company is. I’m not a VC, but I have seen this in many companies as a corporate investor, board member, and corporate customer: Startups always try to do too many things and that means they will end up doing nothing extremely well. SixApart started by developing a damned fine product in Movable Type but it has neglected that product (as I’ve whined) as it built its hosting business at TypePad; now it is handicapping the software company to advantage the hosting company; and when the protests get loud enough, it will surely neglect the hosting company in turn. The company is small with extremely limited resources and management focus and trying to run these two very different businesses is difficult unto impossible.

I’m not linking this to beat up on SixApart three years later but to see the larger lessons in this. Being a platform is a powerful position but it also means that you will find yourself necessarily serving rather than competing with those who use you. That, I believe, is why Google has been smart enough not to be a content site in any meaningful way — contrasted once again with Yahoo — and even its announcement today about distributing content companies’ video inside advertising units on a distributed network of sites is a stellar example of creative platform thinking.

As I noodle around with the notion of a new architecture of news, I wonder whether news organizations start to look more like platforms and less like closed content compaies, enabling news to be gathered and shared across a wide network of contributors, owners, and distributors rather. And so you start to ask whether you are a platform or a creator and you ask whether it’s possible to be both.

Just noodling.

: LATER: In email exchange, Fred Wilson responds:

Is youtube a platform or a media property?

Is flickr a platform or a media property?

Is feedburner a platform or a media property?

In my view, the best way to create value is to be both, but give away the platform to any and all takers and monetize the resulting media property that is created in the process.

He asks whether I agree and I say, uncharacteristically, I’m not sure. Perhaps media is different from technology: You get to use one to build the other. But still, you have to be careful not to fall into channel conflict. Yahoo created that conflict by becoming a media
destination using others’ stuff. YouTube became a media destination by enabling others to distribute their stuff, eh?

New rule: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest

Try this on as a new rule for newspapers: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.

That’s not how newspapers work now. They try to cover everything because they used to have to be all things to all people in their markets. So they had their own reporters replicate the work of other reporters elsewhere so they could say that they did it under their own bylines as a matter of pride and propriety. It’s the way things were done. They also took wire-service copy and reedited it so they could give their audiences the world. But in the age of the link, this is clearly inefficient and unnecessary. You can link to the stories that someone else did and to the rest of the world. And if you do that, it allows you to reallocate your dwindling resources to what matters, which in most cases should be local coverage.

This changes the dynamic of editorial decisions. Instead of saying, “we should have that” (and replicating what is already out there) you say, “what do we do best?” That is, “what is our unique value?” It means that when you sit down to see a story that others have worked on, you should ask, “can we do it better?” If not, then link. And devote your time to what you can do better.

In the rearchitecture of news, what needs to happen is that people are driven to the best coverage, not the 87th version of the same coverage. This will work for publications and news organizations. It will also work for individuals; this is how a lone reporter’s work (and reputation) can surface. We saw that happening with the Libby trial and Firedoglake’s liveblogging of it. As Jay Rosen said at our NPR confab last week — and I’ve heard this elsewhere — theirs became the best source for keeping up on the trial. Reporters and editors knew it and were using it. So those same reporters and editors should have been sending their readers to the blog as a service: ‘We’re not liveblogging it, but they are. We’ll give you our analysis and reporting later. Enjoy.’ That is where the architecture of news must go because links enable it and economics demand it.

* * *

There’s another angle to this: News is not one-size-fits-all. We don’t get all our news from one source anymore. We get bombarded with news all around us. So we all knew that Anna Nicole Smith was dead (or, in Jack Cafferty’s immortal words, still dead). So that means that not every newspaper needs to cover that story in depth.

It certainly means that The New York Times needn’t. So why did the Times devote considerable space and reporting and editing talent to the Anna Nicole story this week? They added nothing more to the story. It’s not what they do best. At the least, if they felt they really needed to cover it, they should have used the AP. Online, they certainly should have just linked to the many, many other sources that are covering it. And then the paper could have used its resources for news that matters and news that they can do uniquely well.

So why did they do it? They didn’t want to be left behind. They perhaps even didn’t want to seem snotting (as if the Anna Nicole story were below them and their readers). But that’s not the issue. Making the best use of their resources and talent it. They need to take advantage of the link.

Newspapers are getting more comfortable with linking out even to competitors. This takes it farther. It says that the best service you can perform for yourself and your readers is to link instead of trying to do everything.

And once you really open yourself up to this, then it also means that you can link to more people gathering more coverage of news: ‘We didn’t cover that school board meeting today, but here’s a link to somebody who recorded it.’ That’s really no different from saying after a big news event, ‘We weren’t there to take pictures, but lots of our readers were and here they are.’

So you do what you do best. And you link to the rest.

That is the new architecture of news.

* * *

LATER: But this is the kind of red-herring arguments we still hear in this discussion. Al Eisele, editor-at-large for The Hill, complains about criticism of MSM and points to the Washington Post’s excellent investigation of the conditions at the Walter Reade Army Medical Center.

This Jurassic journalist is tired of all the bitching and moaning by denizens of the blogosphere about the deficiencies of the Mainstream Media (MSM in the snarky parlance of blognoscenti). Out of touch, corrupted by proximity to power, dinosaur media, inside gasbaggery of the Beltway — these are some of the kinder descriptions of those of us who believe that traditional journalism is still a necessary and honorable trade, like garbage collection or undertaking. . . .

Citizen journalism is fine, and it’s great that vigilant readers are keeping journalist, and politicians, on their toes. But when’s the last time it prodded the bureaucracy into action to fix a problem or correct an injustice? That’s what watchdog journalism, with the veteran reporters and vast resources like that of the Washington Post, does so well. And that’s why the Mainstream Media is still an essential part of the brave new world of journalism in the Internet age.

I haven’t seen a single blogger say that they could do this or that they don’t want MSM to do this. Shoot down that canard. Pickle that herring. What I’m saying above is that we want MSM to do more of this. Instead of covering Anna Nicole and Britney.

: Jeffrey Dvorkin, ex of NPR and now of the Center for Concerned Journalists, echoes my view from above in relation to foreign reporting. As summarized by Romenesko:

* There are local, foreign reporters who are knowledgeable and whose English is excellent. They need to be identified and trained.
* The role of the blogger in foreign reporting needs to be rethought. It is just possible that a blogger-correspondent might be the next phase of reporting.
* The BBC may be a model where eager and often young journalists are given the basics of news gathering then sent overseas to act as one-person bureaus. These journalists may not have all of the experience that old hands may have, but they are willing and adept.

: Richard Sambrook reminds me of a report (PDF) on use of wires vs. original reporting. The Associated Press has been the center of this architecture for years: if you don’t do it, get it off the wire. Only now, there are more ways to follow that same model.

So, Mr. Eisele, rather than whining about bloggers, it would be better to find more ways to work with them — and to link to competitors — so you can concentrate on just the reporting you and I admire.

: SEE ALSO: This earlier post: Nobody wants less reporting.

: LATER STILL: Cory Bergman makes a great point about the parallel world of TV:

There’s an interesting implication here for TV news, as well. The majority of stories in local TV newscasts (and the networks, too) are exactly the same. This sameness is not a detractor in a linear world: most people who watch TV don’t turn off a newscast if they’ve already read or seen a story somewhere else. But on the web, sameness is a drawback: people who have already read or seen a story somewhere else aren’t going to click on it to read it again. Posting the same stories as everyone else has a more tangible impact on pageviews than airing the same stories has an impact on ratings. This becomes even a bigger drawback when you consider all the stories TV newsrooms get from newspapers, which have already been online for most the day before they end up on the TV websites. In the end, covering unique, original stories is a must for TV sites — resources willing — even if it means diverging from TV’s daily coverage. Or better yet, TV newsrooms should cover more enterprise stories as a percentage of daily assignments.

Yes, and then TV news might actually be valuable. Like newspapers, the have resources. It’s a question of priorities.