Posts about newsinnovation

Helping news be news

Google News has just open-sourced its code to create what it calls Living Stories. What this really is, I think, is Google’s attempt to take editors to school on content presentation in our new world.

The article, I’ve argued, is outmoded as the building block of news. The new atomic unit(s) of journalism needs to reflect the transition of news from a product to a process. It needs to gather updates and corrections on a story. It needs to put that story in context and history. It needs to link to other versions of the story from other sources. Going past what Google’s Living Stories format does, it needs to open the door to collaboration. It can do so much more: showing the provenance of the news and linking to original sources, gathering comment and perspective, soliciting questions….

Daylife (where, disclosure, I’m a partner) its own vision of the future of the story, called Smart Stories, that will do more neat things; I’ll let them tell you about it. Daylife also sees that news needn’t exist in isolated, short-lived, repetitive units of presentation invented for the age of print. News should reside in a nest of relevance, which not only improves the presentation, it gives you more options on how you want to delve into the story and follow it and eventually contribute to it. It makes news more personal.

Both companies are doing something important for the benefit of journalists: making them look at what they create in a new way. This is just one possibility, just one step. We also need to think about making news embeddable and distributed. We need to insinuate news into your stream (“if the news is that important, it will find me“) and make it collaborative and enable you to triangulate from different viewpoints and footnote our work and….

The way for Google to serve the interests of news is not to make deals to mollify the mewling Associated Press or cater to pipe dreams of charging. The way that Google and other technology visionaries can help is by reshaping the form of news to show the people who do it how they can do it now. The open-sourcing of Living Stories is a welcome start.

NewBizNews: The podcast

The latest edition of the Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast, which I present, features the work of CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project and discussion with two folks who know hyperlocal: Deb Galant, founder of Baristanet, whom I crowned the queen of hyperlocal; and Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger (who begins the podcast confessing that he began his day reading papers … online).

What’s fascinating is that Galant and Willse extend the idea of local networks.
* Galant wished for a local associated press that would enable news organizations and local blogs to share content and distribute each other.
* Galant at first resisted the idea of ad networks because, to date, they devalue sites and she’s already getting national and regional ads – but then, when asked whether she’d want a piece of advertising that would be up for grabs if a metro paper dies, she relented. The problem is that we need a new word and reputation for networks.
* Willse proposed a co-op apartment model in which the members of the ecosystem/network (call it what you will) engage others – a super – to perform mutual tasks (that’s the role of the framework in our NewBizNews models; it’s what Mark Potts’ Growthspur hopes to provide as a service).
* Galant and Willse also liked the idea of collaborating on journalism, doing more as a group than any of its members could do alone. That’ll be the subject of their next lunch.

It is gratifying to see these people who work in the heart of local adopting and extending some of the ideas we discussed at the Aspen Institute.

By the way, we will hold another meeting in New York to discuss the models, sometime in early November (as soon as I’m sure I’ll be back in full fettle). In the meantime, please take a listen:

Hope

After a yo-yo of hope and no hope below, now we move to the only discussion that really matters: What to do about it. Edward Roussel, head of digital at the Telegraph in London, writes an inspired essay telling newspapers what they should do – if it isn’t too late.

The best approach for battle-weary media executives may be to let the fire run its course—however counterintuitive that might seem. That’s partly because there is little the newspaper industry can do to stop the advancing flames. But it’s also because today’s obsession with saving newspapers has meant that, for the most part, media companies have failed to plan adequately for tomorrow’s digital future. The economic downturn has added to the urgent need for a change of direction….

He makes 10 strong suggestions (my links added):

1. Narrow the focus.
“…[M]edia companies need to invest more money in their premium content—editorial that is unavailable elsewhere but that is highly valued by readers. Go deep, not wide.

2. Plug into a network. “…Media companies will increasingly see themselves as part of a chain of content, as opposed to a final destination. Journalists will act as filters, writing with authority but also guiding readers to sources that add depth to coverage. The future of journalism is selling expertise, not content.”

3. Rolling news with views. “Newspaper deadlines suit publishers, not readers. News is a continuum…. It’s not simply about serving breaking news—the AP and Reuters can handle that. The role of a newspaper company on the Web is to add value: look at a story from a number of angles, engage your audience, add multimedia.

4. Engage with your readers. “The explosion of blogging and social media Web sites has created a culture in which consumers of news expect to be included in the news publishing process….”

5. Bottom up, not top down. “The reporters on the ground are closest to your readers. They are therefore best placed to conceive, create and nurture community Web sites….”

6. Embrace multimedia.Train editors to see video, photo galleries, graphics and maps as equal storytelling forms to text….”

7. Nimble, low-cost structures. “About 75 percent of newspaper costs have nothing to do with the creation of editorial content…. Newspaper companies are bad at technology, so a digitally minded chief technology officer will be able to get cheaper and more effective services by outsourcing. Newspaper sales teams don’t do particularly well at selling ads on the Internet; too often they sell ads that are irrelevant to a reader’s interests in an era when Google has made relevance key. If your sales team can’t beat Google, then outsource to Google.”

8. Invest in the Web. “Don’t try to suck too much revenue from your fledgling network. Your Web site needs investment before it can fly… A Web revenue-growth model cannot simply be a mirror image of the decline in your newspaper sales.”

9. Shake up leadership. “…If the people who run your newsroom aren’t passionate about your digital future, it’s certain not to materialize.”

10. Experiment. “…Don’t be afraid of failure. Try new projects, see what works, and build on success.”

LA Times followup

Russ Stanton, editor of the LA Times, sent email following up on questions I had confirming the much-discussed report below that its web revenue is now sufficient to meet its entire editorial payroll. “Given where we were five years ago,” he email, “I don’t think anyone thought that would ever happen. But that day is here.”

Can I hear an amen?

Stanton does some bragging about the Times’ web life and given this milestone, let’s grant him the moment as Neilsen Net Ratings says it passed USA Today and the Washington Post in uniques with, according to internal numbers, 138 million page views in November, up more than 70% in a year, and 24 million uniques, up 125%.

Secret sauce?

There are two primary reasons for these sharp increases: We have added some outstanding web talent over the past two years, including latimes.com editor Meredith Artley, blogging guru Tony Pierce and database specialist Ben Welsh, who is part of a new 10-person team of interactive and data experts supplementing our print report with terrific online material (more on that in a minute). And our printside reporting and editing staffs have embraced the future like never before.

Nice to see a shoutout for longtime blogging comrade Pierce and for blogging itself:

One of the most visible measures of our success is our blog network. When I became innovation editor in January 2007, only four of our 49 blogs were produced by our staff, and those blogs accounted for only 2% of our site’s total monthly traffic. Today, we have more than 40 blogs, all but six of which are produced by our staff, led by Top of the Ticket, our presidential campaign/politics effort started by Andrew Malcolm and Don Frederick. Technorati now ranks Ticket in the top 60 blogs on the internet. At last count, about half our newsgathering staff — more than 300 professionals — are contributing to our blogs. In several of our traditional print sections (California, Sports, Books, Health, Travel), the entire staff is participating in that section’s main blog. That, in turn, has been acknowledged and valued by our readers. Today, our blogs account for 16% of our total monthly page views.

The paper set up a AM copy desk to start putting content online at 7am (those folks used to waltz in after lunch); many papers have such continuous news desks. Like other papers, the Times is also training lensemen in video.

And here’s my favorite part: education.

With some help from our HR folks, we’ve set up a 40-class curriculum on how to expand the skills our staff needs in these key areas. The most popular classes so far are learning the software program for posting to the web, headline writing to improve SEO, how to shoot and edit video, and 360-degree storytelling, taught by Aaron Curtiss, our innovation editor.

Can the LA Times turn off its presses?

David Westphal reports an important and historic crossing of the Rubicon for a major newspaper, recounting a discussion with LA Times editor Russ Stanton at USC: “Stanton said the Times’ Web site revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs.”

I’ve long been asked by newspaper people – as a challenge – when the web will cover the costs of the newsroom as it exists. I’ve said it won’t, that the scale of the business is just different.

But if what Westphal reports is true – and I confirmed via email that I was reading him correctly (and it does make sense since both edit costs and web revenue run at about 10-15% of newspaper budgets) – then it means the Times could support its newsroom as it stands – after cutbacks aplenty – from the web. That’s momentous.

So why not go ahead and turn off the presses and the trucks and turn the Times into a pure news enterprise, disaggregated from its production and distribution businesses?

Now factor into the post-paper newsroom budget the elimination of many tasks – print production, design, editing. Step back from that knife, Mr. Zell. Rather than eliminating those positions, they must be converted to enabling local networks of partners – freelancers, bloggers, citizens – to expand the journalistic reach of the paper into the community.

And now add in the rumor that the LA Times might get rid of its national – that is, Washington – and international coverage and hand it – or its readers – over to the Washington Post. I’ve been arguing for some time that the national papers – especially the Post but also the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, and perhaps USA Today – could become the Washington bureau to the nation’s papers, saving them all money, giving them all the flexibility to redirect staff (reporters and editors) to local coverage, and giving their readers the best coverage. It’s reverse syndication.

The LA Times could play this same role with other papers if it provided the very best coverage of Hollywood and entertainment to them, in return for links and new audience and traffic. News becomes a network of links made by those who do what they do best and link to the rest.

Clearly, by getting rid of print production and distribution, the LA Times not only gets rid of huge costs – which usually amount to at least half a newspaper’s budget – it also loses both circulation revenue and advertising revenue, which is much higher than digital revenue. As Westphal pointed out in our email exchange, some digital advertising is tied in bundles to print advertising and so the risk is that getting rid of print would hurt digital. But I suspect the opposite would happen: Some of that print advertising will now be forced online. Indeed, I’ve long argued that newspapers should force both readers and advertisers to online – to the future – and turning off the presses would do that.

There’s no question that the scale of the business would be smaller, much smaller. But with only edit and advertising sales costs (I’d market only during the transition) it could be a profitable business – a profitable digital journalistic business. That is the promised land. Welcome to the future.

Note well that bankruptcy makes it easier for a paper the size of the LA Times to consider such a radical move because it resets labor and vendor contracts and relationships with creditors. That size has become a disadvantage for legacy players (and it is why I’ve thought that new players will enter and start to take over these markets). But what if, once past bankruptcy and the cost of shutting down print operations, the LA Times as a news service could be profitable and grow? Yes, grow. News is a growth industry today; newspapers aren’t. But they could be again.

If they do it right, the papers shifts from relentless shrinkage back to practically limitless growth. If they create good hyperlocal networks, they can offer new content at much lower cost and risk (that is, through partnership rather than staffing) and attract new readers at a very local level (while also attracting new readers internationally with that Hollywood coverage). They can create new means to serve an entirely new and very large population of smaller local advertisers who could never afford to use the LA Times before. They could create new services and platforms and find new lines of business.

It almost makes me wonder whether bankruptcy was always part of Sam Zell’s strategy (but I never assume any company or mogul thinks that far ahead). He might lose his investment but if he comes away with the ability to shed huge cost and emerge with profitable, growing enterprises, he could well more that make up for that with future value and even take Tribune Company public again.

All this is why I got a grant from the McCormick Foundation to create a New Business Models for News Project as part of the Center for Journalistic Innovation at CUNY. I plan to work with business students (volunteers?) to play out this model among many others. The time for speculation is over. The time for rebuilding is here.

Entrepreneurial journalism is not an oxymoron

This week, we held the second annual jurying in the entrepreneurial journalism class I teach at CUNY. Damn, it’s fun. And it’s inspiring to see journalists act as entrepreneurs and to see journalistic innovation.

The students propose a new, sustainable, journalistic enterprise. We define journalism broadly. The winners were a platform for educators and students to share lessons in a complex field; a service for a large diaspora; and a company serving news radio over phone calls. (I’m being vague on purpose since these ideas are the students’ own.) Others included coverage of graffiti, one New York neighborhood, one street in a New York neighborhood with a strong social scene (call it nanolocal), Copenhagen, the web itself, and charities. There were also platforms for social bargain hunting and sharing, a new kind of political party, and explaining complex stories. They each emphasized using many media to do the job.

The winners received seed money to actually start their businesses thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation.

The jury: Adam Bly of Seed and Science Blogs; Ed Sussman, who’s working on a new Drupal-based community startup; Upendra Shardanand, founder of Daylife; Michael Rosenblum of RosenblumTV (who blogged the experience here); Susan Rerat, ex of Conde Nast; Matt Drapkin, a private equity man; Mark Josephson, CEO of Outside.in; Joan Feeney, a longtime colleague and consultant; and Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger.

I love teaching this class. The students’ ideas change, sometimes radically, as the course goes on and as they learn more about business and challenge themselves (as guests and fellow students do) – they act like good entrepreneurs. They understand the importance of learning the business, not something I learned in J-school. They look at the world in new ways and see new opportunities.

Last year’s winner took jobs but two or three may still start their businesses. One lesson, among many, that I learned from last year is that new businesses like these need support, and that is why we received a $3 million matching grant from the Tow Foundation to start a Center for Journalistic Innovation, which will include an incubator to support development such as this – from independent entrepreneurs, companies, and the industry as well – with space, advice, and connections.

In the spring, I’m going to teach a truncated version of the course at the Sorbonne with Eric Scherer of the AFP. Dan Gillmor also teaches journalistic entrepreneurship at Arizona as does Rich Gordon at Northwestern. The more, the better. Journalism is not going to preserve itself into the next era; it must innovate its growth. That’s what this course really teaches – not just business and journalism but invention and change.

A complete ecology of news

Dave Winer called my scenario for the future of (local) news a “nightmare,” which may be a bit strong but gets the point across.

Dave wisely and eloquently tries to get away from old assumptions about news, who operates it and how and tries to abstract it to its constituent elements. I’ll agree and disagree with him – or actually, agree with him and then add to it – as I try to draw a picture of a complete ecology of news here.

In one post, Dave says (my emphases):

Think about news as its constituent components, not in the bizarro news world we live in, think about news in the actual world. The components are: sources, facts, ideas, opinions, readers.

The challenge of the news industry, to the extent that there is one, is to connect the first four items with the last item. I don’t think you need a reporter and editor to do that. I don’t think they were doing their jobs anyway, they were being very selective about what sources, facts, ideas and opinions we could have.

I want it all, and I don’t want anyone saying what I can and can’t have.

In a following post, Dave gives us a different expression of the point:

If they [newspapers] could consider other points of view, two in particular, they might get somewhere. The two points of view are:

1. People with news.

2. People who want news.

Source and destination. Reporters are distributors. And editors are facilitators of distribution.

If the people with the news can publish it themselves, and they can; what’s to stop the people who want the news from reading it directly.

I think he’s right in identifying his first four components as the base of news and in identifying the essential relationships in gathering and sharing news. I have long said that gathering and sharing what the public knows will form much – most, even almost all – of news. But not all. There are things missing.

Missing from what? A complete picture. How do I define complete? Complete enough to inform society, to tell us what we need to know. Need or want? That’s a tough decision but I think the proper verb for this discussion is “need” (“want” tends to conjure images of Britney Spears, but I can argue either way). Who determines that need? Society – not the press. But the press, properly deployed and supported, can help assure that need is met. Who’s the press? Anyone can be. So what adds up to completeness? Tasks that need to be actively pursued to add value to the base Dave and I agree forms the foundation of news. I’ll outline those components shortly.

I need to be very careful here not to fall into the traps of (1) defining this ecology of news as the press – newspapers – would define it, from their perspective and (2) defining the tasks as if journalists (as formerly defined) must perform them. I will try hard to be agnostic to both, instead looking at what I think forms a complete ecology of news. Neither should we assume the form of news (see this about moving past the article, and this about rethinking the interview).

First, I’ll reiterate that I believe Dave is quite right in defining his components and how they will be gathered and shared: The public knows and wants to know and in a marketplace of information the internet now enables – with new tools that cannot be imagined in any well-intentioned scenario such as mine (see: Twitter) – that information will flow freely. So what’s missing? Or better yet, what value can be added atop this base? How can it be made better and operate more effectively? What needs and opportunities lie there? Those are the questions I try to concentrate on.

* Reporting. I’ll define this as getting information that people don’t know and/or don’t want to share. This is most commonly seen as investigation: finding out that the mayor is on the take, which may be revealed only by asking the right questions or demanding the right documents and understanding where to look. There is also the case of reporting that asks a question that has not been asked, as researchers do (e.g., what is the impact of the internet on friendship?). Reporting in this definition is an active, not passive, activity of digging, discovering, demanding and in a complete ecology of news – in an informed society and democracy and economy – it is not just a luxury but, I’ll argue, a necessity. (Again, keep in mind, I’m agnostic on who does the reporting; I’m saying that this is a different function from information transport.)

* Organization. Dave says he wants it all. Damned straight. That is to say that we don’t want others to filter, stop, or control information. It was Dave who coined the important notion of the river of news – and wanted no dams on it. Amen. But…. There are also times when we need and want organization. That could be curation (which, in Dave’s posts, Paul Krugman’s blog links provide). It could be summary (which Wikipedia amazingly provides even and especially in providing snapshots of knowledge in big news events – though without the curation of links). In the Mumbai story, GroundReport curated – or organized and facilitated – people, finding Twitterers in Mumbai – amid thousands who were not – to report and write. There are many means and tools to provide organization – bloggers, Digg, blog search, Daylife, GoogleNews, Technorati… My point is only that this is a function – a value – that sits atop the base. And when we all do news, “organization” brings new definitions and opportunities.

* Editing. Editing is such a loaded word, bringing baggage of control and orthodoxy. Keep in mind that here, you are my editors and I greatly value and need (almost all of) your editing. I’m also mindful of the incredible help my book editor, Ben Loehnen at Collins, gave me. Trying to get past the traps I listed above – who performs the tasks and the history of them – let’s try to define the real values of editing. They include vetting facts, clarifying language, asking questions, filling in gaps, adding perspective. Editing is, by definition, value added to the flow of information (when it does, indeed, add value).

* Education. Among all the things I say about news, this is actually the most out-there but gets the least attention. I argue that when everyone does news and wants to do it better, education is a key value to add. Michael Rosenblum does this when he teaches hundreds of people who want to learn how to make better video. Newspapers in the U.K. have been doing this when they tell people how to file effective FOIAs. The Media Bloggers Association does this when it organizes classes in libel law so bloggers can both avoid going to court and get insurance. Journalists were not generous with their knowledge, neither were journalism educators. Again, I’ll get past those old roles in this discussion and say that sharing knowledge about how to better share information is an important value to add to the base. It’s often – usually – not necessary, but it can be helpful for those who want and need it and those who have it would be wise to share.

* Functionality. It may be a mistake to make this a separate value, as technology is primarily a tool of organization. Twitter helps us organize ourselves into conversation. Technorati and Google help us organize our information. But I think it’s important to recognize that just as the internet itself is a tool of sharing our information, its component parts and inventions facilitate and add great value to that.

* Economy. Here Dave and I have disagreed in the past so I want to be careful in this, too, to avoid the traps above, assuming the definitions of the economy of the news industry as it stands. In most of this ecology, the sharing will happen because of generosity and need, without currency. Indeed, information is its own currency. And it would be a mistake to try to define the economy based on the supposed need of its participants (the old, “who’s going to pay for my newsroom?” argument). Instead, as in all economies, when the base – the free exchange – does not meet a need, sometimes it is necessary to pay to fill that need. Let’s say I want to shine as much sunlight as possible on school boards in New Jersey and convince hundreds of people to podcast their board meetings. But I can find no one in Trenton, which needs it most. I decide it’s so important I pay someone to reliably perform the task. I could do that out of goodness and charity, but if there are the means to support that with commerce (e.g., contributions or advertising), I can support and might be able to expand the service. There are opportunities there just as there are needs. I believe that just as software companies can grow out of such opportunity, so can news enterprises that help society better inform itself. I see that as real value atop the base and I also see it as a necessity to get to what I hope is a complete ecology of news and a better informed society.

One side of this discussion will get mad at me for not protecting the role and jobs of journalists. The other side will get mad at me for trying to involve journalists. Here’s my perspective: In one of the many fact-checking queries that apparently amended copy left on the cutting-room floor for the Observer article, John Koblin asked a thought-provoking question about defining myself as a utopian or an earth-scorcher or such (I forget his choices). I said I tried to be a realist about the forces at work in media, technology, and society today and an optimist about the opportunities these bring tomorrow. I’m not trying to kill journalists’ jobs nor do I see it as my role or in my power to protect them. I am trying to understand the inevitable changes occurring – and help spur conversation about them – and then to see opportunities in them, which I believe is the only sane and productive response to change. (Protection, in one of my favorite chestnuts, is not a strategy for the future.)

I hope that journalists will see and seize the opportunities at hand just as I celebrate the opening of news – its definitions and functions – to a vast and broad array of people. I value that new and open exchange of information and news greatly and where it is possible or necessary to add value, great.

So… I agree with Dave that the components of news are sources, facts, ideas, and opinions, though I’ll say the fifth is not readers – following Jay Rosen’s first pronouncement at the first Bloggercon Dave organized – but us, all of us, no matter what role we play. Those roles, I agree with Dave, start with those who have and want or need news. But to that I add the roles and values I outlined here: reporting, organization, editing, education, functionality (or facilitation), and in an economy of some sort – with or without money – supporting that.

Dave concludes his first post:

Now, I’m not glad to see the news industry go that way, I’ve been pleading with them to embrace the future, to stop fighting it, to accept the changes, to give up their point of view. I think it’s still possible to do it, and save some of what they’ve built, but not so much anymore. But it’s going to take some major shifting of point of view to get there. And us users don’t really have much reason to care anymore.

Exactly. But we all care about news.

[I accidentally published this before I was finished editing… as if I’m ever finished. So there are a few changes from the first RSS.]

When witnesses take over the news

I’m writing a Media Guardian column on the news after Mumbai: When witnesses take over the news, the impact on our experience of news, the impact on the news event itself, on the role of journalists, on what new we need in news (organization), on what comes next (live video, of course, and assigning witnesses). As always, I’m grateful for your observations, opinions, and links.

: Great collection of links here (via sujeet).

: Wonderful observation about the absurdity of joining pundits on American TV to talk about news from Amit Varma, who found safety in a hotel hard on one of the attacks.

I was on Larry King Live on CNN about three hours ago. They called me and asked me to be on the show as an eyewitness, at which I protested that I hadn’t actually seen anything, I was merely in the vicinity. But they’d read what I wrote in this post earlier, and they wanted me to talk about that. So I agreed, and came on briefly. King asked me if I’d actually seen any terrorists—I felt guilty that I couldn’t offer him any dope there.

Deepak Chopra was also on the show, speculating that the attacks had taken place because terrorists were worried about Barack Obama’s friendly overtures to Muslims. (I know: WTF?) That sounded pretty ridiculous to me, but such theories are a consequence of our tendency as a species to want to give gyan [knowledge]. A media pundit, especially, feels compelled to have a narrative for everything. Everything must be explicable, and television expects instant analysis.

This is foolish, for sometimes events are complicated, and we simply need to wait for more information to emerge before we can understand it. But many of us—not just the pundits—don’t have the humility to accept that. We want to feel in control, at least on an intellectual level, so reasons and theories emerge. But the world is really far too complicated for us. Yet somehow we muddle along.

The right kind of gyan, in the immediate aftermath of this, is historical perspective, which Christiane Amanpour provided on King’s show. Anything else is premature.

: Amy Gahran tries to track down the rumor – and that’s what it is; an unconfirmed and unsourced reprort – that Mumbai police asked tweeters to stop.

: Mindy McAdams on 10 changes in the news.