Posts about norg

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.

Q & A & A

The Project for Excellence in Journalism created a roundtable-via-email about online and the future of news. That’s here. My answers were cut short, which is fine, except what was excised was my complaint about the questions; I argued that they were bringing the old-media worldview to the new-media world. So they linked to my full answers and so will I. A few examples from the cutting-room floor:

Question: Blog readership seems to have stalled in 2005. Content analysis also shows there is little of what we most would think of as original reporting in blogs. Yet they often write about events outside the purview of the mainstream press. How ultimately do you think blogs and other citizen media will affect news reporting in America? Will we ever see them as a more significant, or even equally important part of the mainstream American news diet as traditional journalism?

Reply: Your questions are fairly dripping with agenda. You seem to be trying to push a worldview that says that blogs and online video are on the decline – so pay no mind to them – and that what journalism needs is more staff. Sorry, but that attitude is what is putting American journalism in peril. Head, meet sand. . . .

You – like so many journalism conferences these days – make the mistake of trying to turn this discussion into a cable news shoutfest: blogs vs. mainstream media! Enough! The right question to ask is how blogs and mainstream media can work together to improve journalism and an informed society. You should be asking how any mainstream journalist could possibly imagine not doing his or her job without the help of the public through blogs. . . .

Question: Do you think the economic model of the Internet has to shift from an advertising based model to something else for traditional journalism to survive at a level that we have become accustomed to? If so, do you have any thoughts on what that new model might be?

Reply: And why is the standard the “level that we have become accustomed to”? I’m sorry to be such a curmudgeon about the curmudgeonly art of journalism, but that is precisely the attitude that, I believe, could be the death of our beloved craft. Your words presume an agenda of trying to preserve a past rather than trying to imagine a future. . . .

Much more and less pissy comment from Media Bloggers’ Bob Cox, Dan Gillmore, Jay Hamilton of Duke University, and Lee Rainie of Pew.

Guardian column: An online news success story

My Guardian column this week tells the success story of Netzeitung. Since I haven’t written about that here, I’m copying the full column below (it’s also here).

A grand experiment in the future of news is succeeding. Pity most of you can’t read it, since it’s in German. But thanks to an accident of school scheduling that plopped me into a German class, I’ve been able to follow Netzeitung.de since it was founded in Berlin in 2000 as a net-only newspaper. It’s not a blog, a search engine or an aggregator. It is a newspaper without the paper, but with 60 journalists reporting the news. Netzeitung has not only survived the internet bubble and a ping-pong game of corporate sales, it has acquired other media properties; it is starting an ambitious effort in networked journalism with citizen reporters; and it is set to be profitable this year. Ausgezeichnet!

Dr Michael Maier, Netzeitung’s editor-in-chief and business head, is an experienced and respected journalist: former editor-in-chief of the Berliner Zeitung, Stern and Vienna’s Presse. No blogger, he. When I met him after he and his partners brought the concept of a netpaper from Norway – where its big sister, Nettavisen.no, is still in business – Maier was adamant that he would have his own staff producing news. I tried to push my populist agenda of interactivity and citizens’ media, but he would have none of it. He was starting a newspaper, dammit, and newspapers have reporters.

In the years since, Netzeitung was bought by Lycos, then by Bertelsmann, then by Maier and a partner, who sold it to Scandinavia’s Orkla, which itself is being acquired by the press baron David Montgomery. Maier says he is glad none of his many masters was a traditional German newspaper, for he doubts he could have developed Netzeitung under its roof. I agree. I got nowhere trying to convince American publishers to try a paperless paper. They are addicted to ink.

Netzeitung remains impressive in the breadth, depth and the timeliness of its reporting. It is among the internet’s most cleanly designed news sites. Maier says the service now serves 1.2 million readers per month. It reportedly will earn €8m this year. It has acquired other large German sites for technology, health and cars. It recently took over a Berlin radio station, and so the online site produces both radio shows and podcasts (what’s the difference?). And it produces online and videotext news for German TV. This experiment in online news has become a budding media empire.

But what brought me back to revisit Netzeitung is its latest effort: Readers-Edition.de, an online paper by and for das volk. True to form, Maier insists that the people must report: “We don’t publish commentary.” So citizen reporters submit news and photos on politics, sports, technology and business. Netzeitung, the parent, puts the best on its home page and then pays the contributors.

Maier says his online journalists were at first afraid of these interlopers. But he also says his reader/writers are better at working with links than ordinary reporters, are fast (helping him scoop competitors), and are smart (they gave him an exclusive on a revival of the 60s radical group the SDS).

One reason we bloggers like blogging is that we have no editors. But the Readers-Edition contributors do: a team of fellow reader/writers act as volunteer moderators with the help of one Netzeitung journalist. They get together in meetings across Germany to share tricks of the trade. They even share rejected stories so contributors can learn what it takes to make the grade. Now that’s transparency.

I wonder whether this model could work elsewhere. The other citizen-written online newspaper of note, South Korea’s OhmyNews, has had difficulty replicating itself in other countries; its political and media landscape may be unique. And when I ran online sites in the early days, I tried to copy what I saw on German sites by having volunteer moderators keep peace in chatrooms. It worked in Germany, where users respected rank, but not in the US, where moderators got power-mad and users revolted.

I would love to see both Netzeitung and Readers-Edition spread, for we need more answers to questions asked at nearly every journalism conference I attend, namely how will we support journalism in the future? What are the business models for news? How does journalism survive post-press? I hope the answers lie in creating vibrant and successful newspapers that do not depend on paper. I hope the answers lie in creating networks that allow professional and amateur journalists to work together. And I hope the answers are also in English, since I didn’t pay much attention in that German class.

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.

NewAssignment.net

Jay Rosen announces an important experiment in journalism today: NewAssignment.net.

In a nutshell: This is publicly supported journalism. The public will come to NewAssignment.net with story ideas and will collaborate on honing them there. Once assigned by NewAssignment’s editors, the public will contribute both money and reporting to the work that reporters are paid to do. The process is open and the public will have a strong voice and role in the journalism NewAssignment does. Editors will supervise the assignments and the reporting and will edit the stories, assuring that NewAssignment produces quality journalism and also that it is not overtaken by a pressure groups. There’s much more to this with many nuances and Jay examines them all in a lengthy (even for him) FAQ on his blog.

This is an answer — not the answer — to the frequently asked question in the shrinking news business these days: How will we support journalism and investigation? NewAssignment will not replace the work of professional news organizations. It will complement them, attacking the stories that are not being covered. It begins with an article a few articles faith. First: The public will support journalism and investigation. Second: The public will then want more of a voice and a role in that reporting. Third: Given the opportunity to have more of a voice and role, the public will contribute more support. It’s a virtuous circle, if it works.

Jay got funding from the MacArthur Foundation to explore this idea for a year. NewAssignment just received a grant from Craig Newmark‘s personal foundation to fund the work on a pilot project. And NewAssigment is getting help from Daylife, the news startup I’ve been working on. That relationship: Daylife will gather, analyze, organize, and create a new, distributed platform for the world’s news. In a sense, then, NewAssignment is complementary: Daylife shows you what is being covered and New Assignment fills in a few of the gaps about what is not being covered. Daylife will provide some technical and distribution help, starting with a pilot project.

I’ve known about Jay’s vision for NewAssignment for more than a year now and I’ve thrown in my two cents. I think this is an important experiment in pro-am, publicly supported, open journalism. We must explore new business models to support coverage of news and this is one of them. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of NewAssignment and I look forward to working with Jay and you on it and learning a lot along the way.

This is your chance: You’ve said you wonder why some stories are not getting covered. Well, now you can gather together and get them covered. You’ve wanted more of a role in journalism. Now you can be involved from start to finish. You’ve known facts that would matter in news coverage if only you could be heard. Now, you can.

Too many journalists

The accepted wisdom in the news biz is that you can never have too many journalists and that the ad and circ crunch hitting papers will hurt papers by reducing newsroom staff. I’ve been questioning that wisdom here.

But sitting on another darned panel yesterday, Chrystia Freeland, ME of the FT in the US, said it better than I have. We were singing two-party harmony as I wondered why every newspaper needs a movie critic when the movies aren’t local and she questioned the need for the Miami Herald to have its own Moscow bureau — back in the heyday when she was reporting there herself — to get that apparently unique Miami view of the USSR.

Then she said that news is “an industry with a lot of oversupply that is now exposed.” I liked that hard economic talk about the business. It reminds us that we are an industry and need to reexamine our business assumptions like every other industry.

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

Then make a deal with the owners to take the saved labor expenses and invest them immediately in digital interaction. I don’t mean moving old copy editors over to online and teaching them HTML to join the spare staffs there. I mean hiring new people with new specialties: people to get out into the communities and recruit and help support citizens to join in networked reporting at a local, local, local level.

And then shame the publisher into doing likewise with a sales staff that has spent a generation maintaining ever-dwindling lists of advertisers and not really selling n ew business, since there isn’t any. Trim there, too. And there, too, don’t take an old classified sales guy and try to train him in online. Invest in technology and marketing to create your local Googles: extremely efficient and thus inexpensive self-service advertising for new classes of advertisers who could not afford your marketwide print or online products. Maybe recruit citizens to help sell you on commission. And build distributed at networks across citizens’ sites. More on the biz guys later.

I come back to Freeland’s very clear statement: We are in oversupply. It’s time — past time — to face that and act on it.

Commodity propaganda

Juan Antonio Giner shows exactly what is wrong with the news industry today. Here.

Who’s in charge here?

A followup to the post about the Dow Jones task force, below….

I had an email exchange with an editor I respect about the merging of print and online newsrooms and operations that tends to follow such task forces. There’s a vital issue many are dancing around:

Who’s in charge of the future? The print guys or the online guys?

At many media companies, online was started as a separate division and for good reason. If it had begun as part of the print newsroom, the editors there would have tried to mold the internet into the image of print, and the business people would have sold the internet as a valueless add-on to print. Some are still trying. At my last employer, we started separately for good reason. But today, if the entire company doesn’t become digital, it’s dead. That’s why news companies are merging newsrooms.

So who should be in charge? In many of the efforts to merge or reorganize news companies, the print people ended up in charge. They have more ballast and political clout. They are the 2,000-pound canaries. Now I don’t mean to diminish their experience, of course. But the experience of the online people is being diminished and shouldn’t be. They have worked to invent new products with new opportunities and understand this new world, but again and again, I’ve seen them shoved aside or exiled as threats. That is a big mistake.

The ballsy news company will not only give precedence to the internet but also to the people who know the internet. I’m afraid I’m not seeing that happen.

: LATER: Michael Urlocker has some advice on disruption and task forces for Dow Jones.

: Roy Greenslade chimes in.

: Matt Terenzio says:

Newspapers are more religion than business to many of their producers. We need a left turn and it’s nearly impossible to get them to budge a few degrees.

One more thing.

It is my opinion that it would be much easier and faster to get the online folks up to speed on traditional journalism and print business practices than it would be to get the print folks to understand the web.