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Edit me

I’m on a panel for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences next month with Jill Abramson, John Carroll, Geneva Overholser, and Jon Klein, with Norm Pearlstine presiding. They’re having us write our spiels beforehand so continued on the jump is my attempt to boil this blog down to five minutes. Take a look and comment, please:

News is not shrinking, even if newspapers are.

We are faced with no end of new opportunities in journalism as our definitions of news explode and as interest in news expands. We have new ways to gather, share, and judge news from new sources across new media.

So it is time to end the editorial Eeyoreing and newsroom protectionism that has dominated this discussion to date and instead to focus on the many opportunities we have to update, upgrade, and expand the scope and reach of journalism in society.

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The stewardship of journalism’s future

Now how’s that for a haughty headline? But it’s what I’ve been asking myself lately: Does journalism have the right protectors, builders, supporters, stewards? One has to wonder based on the news about news just in the last 48 hours:

The LA Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer get rid of their editors but bring in more editors like them. No offense to any of these editors, fine journalists, all, I’m sure. But if you want to change, don’t you want to bring in new people to do new things? That’s what Mark Potts wonders. That’s what I shrieked about here.

And then we have rich egotists trying to buy the LA Times or Tribune Company (not to mention the Boston Globe) and that’s all about rich boys’ toys and nothing about bringing in new ways to reinvent the news business. It merely staves off the inevitable… for a few weeks (witness Philadelphia and its layoffs). And then there’s Morgan Stanley pressuring the NY Times Company to change its management and stock structure.

I spent some of the last 24 hours at the FourSquare conference, which is filled with CEOs and moneymen in suits. Last year, there were lots of newspaper execs there. This year, fewer. It’s an off-the-record schoozefest so I won’t quote the moguls by name, but a couple of guys who run very big, very new companies, each barely a decade old, agreed that their organizations can’t invent from within. That’s why they’re buying companies from outside.

And so I thought about the newspaper business. If these new, successful, innovative, smart, large media companies can’t invent, how can we expect for a second that the existing newspaper industry can invent its future? It can’t. Full stop.

So the future of news gathering and sharing and vetting and investigating needs to be built on the outside. But is it? Not much is. (And I’m not referring to the ventures I’m involved with: Daylife and NewAssignment.net; consider them present companies excepted and see my disclosures here.) I don’t see enough development going on in new news efforts — enough to save journalism from the sinking news business. And that’s what’s troubling me. The old players are proving to be quite ineffective stewards — we knew that — but there aren’t enough new stewards joining the church.

I’m obnoxiously optimistic about the future of news: the definitions of it are exploding along with the new means to gather, share, judge it. I am confident that the public wants news; the society demands to be informed. I know there are no end of great opportunities. I’m just surprised that so few of them are being grasped. The old players can’t do it. We need more new players to take hold of the future of news — not just journalists but entrepreneurs and managers and investors and inventors. It’s there for the taking.

Bye-bye now

LA Times Editor Dean Baquet has been forced out. Well, I’m crying no tears. Someone in the news business pushed me yesterday with the idea that Baquet was doing God’s work and I went ballistic. Quite the contrary, I said, rather than pushing to preserve the past, he should have been pushing his bosses to be investing in the future. He should have been investing in networked journalism to take the paper hyperlocal and in online and audio and video to take the paper past paper. He should have made his own cuts in the old newsroom to pay for those investments. He should have had a vision and strategy for the future. Whining at corporate is no damned strategy at all. Dean Baquet was dangerous for journalism because he was defending the past rather than fighting for the future. Bye-bye now.

Complementary news

The BBC is planning new very local services and Mark Thompson told newspaper editors that it might pay them for local content.

I think in both the UK and the US we will find a complementary architecture for national and local news evolving: The national licenses and pays for or promotes and links to local content; the locals do likewise for national content because neither can afford to do what the other does. I’ll write more about this later in a post I’m writing about what I’m calling reverse syndication.

I wrote some of this back in May in a Guardian column suggesting such a relationship for the BBC and other news providers.

Google and newspapers

Yesterday, I ranted about newspapers’ failure to invent new ways to serve advertisers, ceding the business to Google. Today I read on Greenslade a discussion of classifieds, Google, and newspapers at the Society of Editors. There is the usual debate in such gatherings: Is Google a friend or foe? I say that’s the wrong question. They should be asking: What is Google doing that we should be doing? How can we be doing it? What will Google do next? Can we get there first? And what can Google do that we can’t and how do we take advantage of that? Google is a reality. Arguing about whether it is friend or foe will do no more good than sitting back and watching it do what you should be doing. Google is still trying to figure out its proper role in this ecosystem. Read the last paragraph from Stephen Brooks’ coverage on Greenslade to see that:

Classified advertising could vanish from newspaper print editions by the year 2020, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger suggested to the Society of Editors in Glasgow.

Participating in a panel about the media in 2020 that included Nathan Stoll, the product manager of Google News, Rusbridger was up front in saying that he had no definitive answers about the future, writes Stephen Brook. “The honest answer to the question is nobody knows,” Rusbridger told the audience in a lively panel session which included much discussion about how newspapers will survive Google hoovering up much advertising.

“I predict that classified advertising could disappear from newspapers by 2020,” Rusbridger said. Classified adverts from the Guardian print edition were declining by about 9% a year while internet advertising on Guardian Unlimited was growing by about 50% each year – but from a much lower base. The Guardian was attempting to monetise its recruitment revenues with the launch of Guardian Recruitment Services, a full recruitment organisation rather than just a classified advertising service.

“Nobody in newspapers can decide if Google is the friend or their enemy,” Rusbridger said. “The friendly bit is that they drive lots of traffic back to us and we might be able to monetise that. What’s happening at the moment is that Google is hovering up stupendous amounts of money on the back of our content.

Robin Esser, executive managing editor of the Daily Mail, agreed. “The wider the message is spread the better but we need to be able to monetise that.” . . .

The youthful Google News chief said that the company was in the search and advertising business. “We are not content creators”. The next step for Google News is to do a better job in treating original content. “What we try and do is make sure than traffic goes to who properly produced a piece of work.” The Google News search algorithms will be refined to “expose original journalism”. The ultimate aim would be to build an “online ecosystem of publishers that is healthy”.

More coverage from the Press Gazette.

Networked, omnimedia journalism

Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger speaking to the Society of Editors endorses networked journalism and media agnosticism — pointing to NewAssignment.net and the Sunlight Foundation:

The future for newspapers was one beyond text, he said. Last week the Guardian was on eight platforms ranging from a video report on Newsnight to podcasts on iTunes. “I don’t spend time losing sleep over whether there will be a paper or not because there is nothing I can do about it,” he said. He predicted that reporters will become converged newsgathers. All reporters will work in at least five media and networked journalism would see professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, but he left open the question of who would edit it.

“I think you have to prepared to be surprised and you have to experiment like mad.”

SkyNews also presented an omnimedia view:

Thus Sky News will revamp its website so that its rolling news channel would be on its website. But web users will search for keywords and call up and play news clips on the topics that they want. Audiences will also call up news clips from a menu and send in clips from news events via mobile phones. Web users will customise the Sky News web page, so that the stories in their favourite topic areas are more prominent. A new digital channel Sky News 501, will offer TV viewers the same variety of options from the website.

Guardian column: Free fall

My Guardian column this week is on newspapers’ free fall, pulling together some of what I’ve been writing here lately (registration-free link here). Snippet:

What disturbs me most is not the news, but the news industry’s reaction. Where we should be seeing aggressive, strategic leaps into the future, we instead hear the mournful braying of editorial Eeyores.

Gannett explodes the newsroom

Well, good on Gannett. They’re exploding their newsrooms, changing how they are organized, how they operate, and tearing down the walls to the world formerly known as the outside. Jeff Howe at Wired tells the story and posts memos from Gannett on his Crowdsourcing blog.

Starting Friday, Gannett newsrooms were rechristened “information centers,” and instead of being organized into separate metro, state or sports departments, staff will now work within one of seven desks with names like “data,” “digital” and “community conversation.”

The initiative emphasizes four goals: Prioritize local news over national news; publish more user-generated content; become 24-7 news operations, in which the newspapers do less and the websites do much more; and finally, use crowdsourcing methods to put readers to work as watchdogs, whistle-blowers and researchers in large, investigative features.

Now I’ve seen plenty of newsroom reorganizations in my day and they haven’t changed the biorhythms of news yet. But at the Online News Association, I was impressed hearing an editor at a Gannett paper in Delaware tell how he had turned his newsroom into a 24-hour omnimedia operation. Add to that the inside-out use of crowdsourcing and you have the Gannett plan.

I fear that the culture of the newsroom will do everything it can to stop this. Here this foot-dragging in Howe’s story:

Naturally, the newsrooms are wary of the changes, despite the results achieved in Fort Myers. “We’ve broken into task forces to figure out how to implement this, but some of this stuff, I’ll be honest, gives us great pause,” said one midlevel editor at a Gannett newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity.

This is precisely why I left my job. That is what stood in the way of change and, I argue, survival for newspapers.

Except Gannett could be different. Gannett newsrooms are smaller and younger (though don’t count on young staffers to be any more forward thinking and brave than their elders). And it’s hard for anyone in newsrooms today to deny that they’re in trouble (though many will try!). And top management is making a strong push for these changes. Said CEO Craig Dubow in his memo to the staff:

The changes impact all media, and the public has approved. Results include stronger newspapers, more popular Web sites and more opportunities to attract the customers advertisers want.

So perhaps this has a chance. I hope so.

It will work if success stories pile up. Journalists love to brag and if this structure gives them bragging rights, it will help. Howe reports on such a success story:

“We’ve already had some really amazing results with the crowdsourcing element of this,” said Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s VP for new media content. “Most of us got into this business because we were passionate about watchdog journalism and public service, and we’ve just watched those erode. We’ve learned that no one wants to read a 400-column-inch investigative feature online. But when you make them a part of the process they get incredibly engaged.”

The most prominent example, Carroll said, occurred this summer with The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida. In May, readers from the nearby community of Cape Coral began calling the paper, complaining about the high prices — as much as $28,000 in some cases — being charged to connect newly constructed homes to water and sewer lines. . . .

Readers spontaneously organized their own investigations: Retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.

“We had people from all over the world helping us,” said Marymont. For six weeks the News-Press generated more traffic to its website than “ever before, excepting hurricanes.” In the end, the city cut the utility fees by more than 30 percent, one official resigned, and the fees have become the driving issue in an upcoming city council special election.

Now there is networked journalism in action.

I hope to hang out at a Gannett paper or two to see how it goes.