Posts about newspapers

Next for media

Here’s video of my talk to the Nordic Media Festival on what I think comes next in media:

: Oops. Sorry. The video was embedded here but the player had damned auto-play and no way to turn it off. Why the hell do they do that? o here’s a link.

: Now here’s video of a very similar talk I gave this week in Ottawa to the Public Policy Forum.

Future of news

I taped this show months ago and didn’t even know when it aired on PBS. It’s a not-bad discussion of the future of news with me, Steve Coll of the New America Foundation (ex of the Washington Post) and John Sturm of the Newspaper Association of America:

BTW, When I taped the show, I was not told that it was backed by the George W. Bush Institute. Didn’t affect the show, so far as I can see, but it would have been nice to know.

Finally, good news for Google

James Fallows writes an important cover story for The Atlantic on how Google wants to help save the news. It doesn’t break a single new nugget of news. It’s the piece’s attitude that makes it must reading for everyone in the news business, in the U.S. and even moreso in Europe.

Google is not the enemy. But don’t take my word for it if you don’t want to. Take Fallows’.

Fallows, who has been admirably forward-thinking and curious in his coverage of technology and media (see his test of Bing v. Google, for example), comes at the question of Google’s relationship to news as neither enemy nor fanboy. He simply wants to understand what Google’s attitude is toward the news and then what the company is doing to back up its expressed sentiments about helping save (or I’d prefer to say, advance) news. He writes:

Everyone knows that Google is killing the news business. Few people know how hard Google is trying to bring it back to life, or why the company now considers journalism’s survival crucial to its own prospects…. But after talking during the past year with engineers and strategists at Google and recently interviewing some of their counterparts inside the news industry, I am convinced that there is a larger vision for news coming out of Google; that it is not simply a charity effort to buy off critics; and that it has been pushed hard enough by people at the top of the company, especially Schmidt, to become an internalized part of the culture in what is arguably the world’s most important media organization. Google’s initiatives do not constitute a complete or easy plan for the next phase of serious journalism. But they are more promising than what I’m used to seeing elsewhere, notably in the steady stream of “Crisis of the Press”–style reports.

Fallows says that the three pillars of a new online business model for news, in Google’s view, are “distribution, engagement, and monetization.” My equivalents are the conveniently alliterative engagement (for the public), effectiveness (for advertisers), and efficiency (in the operation). That is to say, Google doesn’t touch — nor should it want or need to — the fourth and vital leg to sustainable business models for news: cost. That’s what will make it easier to get Politico’s local product, TBD.com, to profitability more easily than the competitive Washington Post can stay there. That’s why I am looking more at the entrepreneurial than institutional future of news. That’s why I think this quest Google and others are on is about more than saving newspapers and more than saving news; it’s about finding new opportunities. But nevermind that.

What Fallows finds inside Google is people who care about news, who are working to try to create new forms for news and structures for the companies that produce it, who are indeed making it a priority. He finds people who want to work together. I say news companies are fools not to at least listen.

Two dinosaurs fighting over a dodo bird

David Carr has a characteristically wry-on-rye view of the Wall Street Journal’s launch of a New York edition today and the newspaper war that supposedly ensues.

We’re supposed to celebrate newspaper wars. Good ol’ days, remember? But I think this one could be deadly.

These two former giants are fighting over a shrinking pie with no filling. The Times is third in the New York area — much of that in the tri-state suburbs — with 406k daily circulation. The Journal has 294k in the same region. The New York Daily News leads with 570k and the Post with 530k — and they each get most of that in New York City.

The Times has a large reporting staff devoted to New York — it’s big and expensive and hard to cover — and limited local advertising (especially, of course, in classified). Two years ago, I suggested that The Times drop or spin off metro and make itself a truly national newspaper. Maybe if they’d done that — not there was a chance in hell they would have — Murdoch wouldn’t have chosen New York as his battleground with them. But now he has and so now they have to fight. And they’ll carry that fight, they say, to more metro areas (though in Chicago, The Times is working with a not-for-profit partner, reducing costs).

This is not a fair fight since Murdoch doesn’t so much care about making a sustainable business as he does about

News(paper) in the cloud

I think it’s possible today to run a news organization — up to the point of publishing — from the cloud, changing not only the production process of news but also its culture. John Paton, CEO of Journal Register, is about to prove it with his Ben Franklin Project.

John and I were sitting in my CUNY office as he told me about the technology he’s saddled with at this orphaned newspaper company where he just took the helm. He used a term I swear I hadn’t heard in well more than a decade: “VDT.” That stand for “video display terminal,” the old, dumb box that was wired into newspaper mainframes. I was talking with a bunch of young journalists shortly afterwards and they’d never heard of VDTs (though they thought it could be cured with a shot). Well, Paton still has VDTs.

And so, as he was talking about having to buy new computers, I took to the whiteboard and drew out how I think a news(paper) can be produced from WordPress, Google Docs, and Flickr (or their equivalents). We’ll get to the other functions shortly.

This up-in-the-air production is made possible by Paton’s edict at JRC (as he dictated at ImpreMedia before) that digital comes first, print last. If print comes first, newspaper people will worry about H&J (hyphenation & justification — that is, fitting text to finite holes in print designs). That dictated their process.

But not JRC. By putting print at the end of the line, production for paper won’t dictate the rest of the line. So now a reporter can start blogging at the beginning of a story. And that makes a profound shift in the culture of news: it opens up the process to the public. “Here’s what I think I’ll work on,” the reporter says to the community she covers. “Good idea? Is there something else you think I should do instead? What’s the best use of my time? What do you want me to find out for you? If I do this story, what questions do you have? What do you know? Whom should I call?” As the process continues, the reporter can share what she learns — and doesn’t learn — and the community can help fill in blanks and make the reporting better.

At some point in this process, the reporter likely will write what we’d still recognize as an article. Indeed, writing it before publication opens the possibility of the community still helping by correcting and enhancing.

Then a print editor can grab the story and fit it for print. No longer a big deal.

At the same time, the reporter and editor can ask the community for photos to illustrate the story. They can be shared via Flickr. When it’s time to print, an editor can copy the high-resolution version of an image. If the photographer chooses, he can make the photo available under Creative Commons. If the paper chooses to (as Bild does in Germany), it can pay. That’s up to them. The taking of photos can become competitive: a reader says “I can beat that.”

There are still bureaucratic details that must be handled: schedules of stories, who’s working on what, and so on. Google Docs is perfect for that. My CUNY colleague Jeremy Caplan showed our faculty how much more Docs can do: enabling reporters to, for example, graph data and create their own illustrations. Docs can be used to publish documents to the web.

From these three streams, content can come to a print editor — who is now, remember, at the end of the line — to fill the paper (which my friend and fellow JRC advisor Jay Rosen points out, is the most expensive space). The readers can even help the editor decide what deserves ink.

Note the profound cultural shift this new process brings to a news organization. Rather than doing everything we do and then sharing it with the public — and allowing them to comment on (or snark at) our work — we become transparent, we view news as a process instead of a product, and we open up our process to constructive collaboration with the community we serve. Hallelujah.

The rest of the process of publishing a newspaper is more complicated — at least to me, as I don’t know the tools. I’m not sure all that can be done with free tools but I’ll bet it can all be done in the cloud. At a Salesforce.com event last week, I talked with an exec who said that his service can be used to handle ad order entry. Other systems can handle business tracking, payroll, H&R, and such. I don’t think JRC needs to be dogmatic about living in the cloud but I do think it can avoid huge expense of buying and integrating new systems and hardware.

All this is why I’m delighting in advising JRC and Paton. They are going to try to do the things I’ve been wanting to see news(papers) do — I’ve been writing about this since at least 2005 — the things that tradition and fear prevented other papers from doing. They’re not alone. AnnArbor.com (which I also advised) is entirely on Movable Type. Online news organizations, of course, operate on blogs. But here’s the chance to jump a newspaper company from the past — from the age of VDTs and discs — to the future. I can’t wait to watch and help.

What is content, then?

In the discussion about the iPad, much has been made of its nature as a content consumption — versus creation — device. I lament its limitations as a tool of creation. Howard Owens, speaking for many, tells me that most people don’t want to create content.

But what’s content?

We in media have a bad habit of viewing the world in our image. We think the internet is a medium (I say instead it’s a place; this Cisco post says it is a language). We in media also think we get to define what content is: It’s what we make.

But Google, for one, doesn’t define content that way. It sees content everywhere, in everyone’s words and actions and it gains signals, knowledge, and value from that. We in media are blind to that value because we can’t see the content in that.

When we email a link to a friend, that act creates content. When we comment on content, we create content. When we mention a movie in Twitter — that’s just useless chatter, right? — our tweets add up to valuable content: a predictor of movie box office that’s 97.3% accurate. When we take a picture and load it up to Flickr — 4 billion times — that’s content. When we say something about those photos — tagging them or captioning them or saying where they were taken — that’s content. When we do these things on Facebook, which can see our social graph, that creates a meta layer that adds more value to our content. On Foursquare, our actions become content (the fact that this bar is more popular than that bar is information worth having). When we file a health complaint about a restaurant, that’s content. Our movements on highways, tracked through our cellphones, creates content: traffic reports. Our search queries are content (that awareness — that new ability to listen to the public’s questions — led Demand Media to a big business).

Do we all make content? Absolutely.

So when I complain about the iPad hampering our ability to create content, I mean that it makes it harder to share links and thoughts and images when I wish it had made it easier. And the apps media companies are making also make it hard to share our views and link into or out of their closed worlds. When they do that, they are shutting themselves off from the content people create every day and the value it holds.

There is content everywhere. You just have to be able to see it. And respect it.

Serendipity is unexpected relevance

Serendipity is not randomness. It is unexpected relevance.

I constantly hear the fear that serendipity is among the many things we’re supposedly set to lose as news moves out of newsrooms and off print to online. Serendipity, says The New York Times, is lost in the digital age. Serendipity, it is said, is something we get from that story we happen upon as we flip pages, the story we never would have searched for but find only or best in print. Serendipity, it is also said, is the province and value of editors, who pick the fluky and fortuitous for us. Without serendipity, as I hear it, we’ll be less-well informed (all work, no play, makes Jack a dull boy; all relevance, not serendipity, makes Jill a predictable girl).

A few days ago, a Guardian guy, inspired by Clay Shirky hacked together a serendipity generator: just a random story served up on a click. It wasn’t a serious solution, just fun. But it focused the serendipity question for me.

What is serendipity? It’s not a story from left field. It’s not, I think, “the opposite of what you normally consumed.” There’s a reason we find value in the supposedly serendipitous. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I said that our features had to satisfy a curiosity you didn’t know you had — but you end up having it. When we read a paper and find a good story that we couldn’t have predicted we’d have liked, we think that is serendipity. But there’s some reason we like it, that we find it relevant to us. Maybe that relevance is the unknown but now fed curiosity, maybe it’s enjoyment of good writing or a certain kind of tale, maybe the gift of some interesting fact we want to share and gain social equity for, maybe it’s a challenge to our ideas, maybe an answer to a question that has bugged us. In the end, it has value to us; it’s relevant.

Can that relevance be analyzed and served? Can we still get serendipity online? Of course, we can and do — mostly on Twitter and Facebook. Serendipity comes from friends who find that story and — like an editor — pass it on. If we share their judgment, we may like what they share and call that serendipity. But there’s plenty that passes me by on Twitter that I don’t like; it’s serendipitous by the usual definitions but it doesn’t work for me because it has no value; it’s not relevant.

Can an algorithm serve us serendipity? Maybe, if it has enough signals of what we and people we trust like, what interests us, what we need, our context. It can calculate and predict and try to serve our relevance and serendipity. I think serendipity comes not from one-size-fits-all editing but from better targeting across a larger pool of possibilities. If Google can intuit intent, I think it can also serve surprise and serendipity.

MORE: See also Chris Anderson and Matthew Ingram on serendipity.

The money graph

A new Pew study on the economics of news does not give comfort to news sites planning pay schemes. It also does not give me comfort that we’re wasting precious time futzing over walls when we should be paying attention to the big problems we have — one of which this Pew study points out: dreadful engagement and loyalty — and should be looking at other ways to give and gain value in our relationships with the public. The Pew data:

Over all, the evidence suggests the outlook is difficult both for paywalls and for online display advertising. While most people have not been asked to pay for content, even among the most avid news consumers online, only about one in five at this point say they would be willing to pay, and this does not include less voracious news consumers. At the same time, the vast majority of those online, 8 out of 10, say they basically ignore online ads.

In short, a good deal must change, the data suggests, before the digital age will begin to sustain itself.

About 71% of internet users, or 53% of all American adults, get news online today, a number that has held relatively steady in recent years.

Most of these online news consumers graze across multiple sites without having a primary one that they rely on. Only 35% of online news consumers have a favorite site.

To put it another way, 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that is so important to them that it stands out in their minds above all other sites they visit.

The users who do have a favorite site are pretty faithful. Some 65% of them check in with that favorite site at least once a day.

Yet even among these most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19%) said they would be willing to pay for news online, including those who already do so and those who would be willing to if asked.

Instead, a large majority – 82% – of those with a favorite site said they would find somewhere else to get the news.

Because so few online news consumers even have a favorite site this translates to only 7% of all people who get news online having a favorite online news source that they say they would pay for.

This is a sign of just how much initial difficulty the movement toward pay walls could have.

In sum, there appears to be only a very small cohort of voracious news consumers who have to have their news from a particular site, even if they have to pay for it. The vast majority of online news consumers, though, seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content.

This is not to say that resistance might breakdown over time. . . .

All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative.

Thus, if the news industry is going to make headway with pay-walls, they are going to have to break through what for now appears to be continuing reluctance, even among its most avid consumers.