Posts about norg

Spitting on the bonfire

I’m at a session on Newspaper Next, an American Press Institute project to try to bring innovation to newspapers. They’re working with Clay Christensen, change guru, and started projects with various newspapers about such things as getting ads from smaller businesses; creating a one-stop resource for mothers; developing an organizational structure for innovation; increasing readership; getting broader audiences, and this: “rethink online effort to meet key information and community engagement needs for wider range of users, including nonconsumers of news.” I thought that last one might just be about citizens’ media. But, no, it’s more about “audiences.”

We’re not an audience, damnit. I think this project needs to learn how to collaborate with the people formerly known as the audience. When they launched, I was cranky about it. They’re trying to reshape newspapers but I think they should be more aggressive and imagine the world after newspapers and figure out how to get news there. They need to get out there and work with the nonnewspaper people

The project took a survey of 500 newspapers managers found that 28 percent thought their companies saw the trends and had answers; the rest didn’t. “So it’s clear that the industry has no idea what to do next,” says Steve Gray, leader of the project, who’s speaking here.

We’re getting the Christensen disruptive innovation spiel. I hate to think that there could be anyone left in the newspaper industry who isn’t aware that they’re quite disrupted. I’m eager to see innovation and experimentation that is not afraid to disrupt itself.

Now he’s starting to list the disrupters taking on newspapers, starting with free print dailies, then Craigslist. Oh, those are only the easy disrupters. Sit down and start listing how the internet disrupts the newspaper business and you’ll fill a page very fast. Start here: How about your readers writing as disruption?

Will innovation happen within the industry this way? Having been in too many task forces inside and outside news companies, I am dubious.

See, instead, how Murdoch is innovating: He’s buying MySpace. Viacom buys iFilm. Even Yahoo and Google buy the guys inventing the next things.

I said to Gray that the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats. He shifted the metaphor and said he’s trying to big, old cows to move a bit.

I don’t think that’s enough. In fact, I think that making small steps — hey, least we’re doing something, you say — is false comfort. It is dangerous.

Newspaper as open-source focus group

Some intriguing comments on my column about the Guardian’s web-first move. Start with MrPikeBishop, aka Frank Fisher, proposing a means to augment the still-measly revenue of online news with online think tanks and reviewers:

It’s money though isn’t it? That’s the big fat fly in the ointment. . . . And that’s probably causing quivering sphincters at every paper in the developed world. Sure, the optimists will say expanded online advertising will take up the slack, and that punters may even spring for micropayments – they might, in the end. But in the interm…. wooooohooooh. . . .

Personally I don’t think the media have quite grasped that as well as presenting a different way of delivering the story, the web is also TWO WAY. You give to the punters, but the punters, as we see here, also give back. Don’t think that advertising, or pay for news, is the only revenue stream possible. I’ve already been conjuring with ideas of using intelligent web communities as on-demand think tanks, for project or idea review, or for brainstorming purposes, but there are more readily obvious opportunities to hand.

Take film, music – what’s the best way to get a new movie or album to break in a big way? What gets punters through the turnstiles faster than anything else? Word o’ mouth. Who’s reviews do people trust most? NME? Time Out? Or their buddy’s? A lot of people on this site [Comment is Free, that is] love film, a lot love music – Guardian, take that. Use it. Create an intelligent and articulate panel, and SELL that service. How do you know who you can trust on ebay? Feedback ratings. Millions now accept and use this rating system – why think it would only work for items on ebay? Why won’t it work for biscuits? Pensions? Coffee shops? Throw select readers a little bone, and sell their expertise and their valued opinion. Aggregate opinons, ratings, sell the service. Sure, the punters won’t do this for nothing, but if they get streamed new movies to review, or music, or vouchers for a new bar etc etc etc. The brightest underachievers in the world hang out at GU, that’s a resource.

There’s a lot lurking in that. It’s about capturing and giving value to the wisdom of your crowd. It’s about acting as a moderator for sharing their experience and opinions. It’s about networks of trust. It’s about beating the hell out of random focus groups with detailed and valuable research. It’s about sharing your stuff with the public and getting value in return. The discussion continues as gawain says:

I’ve never been called a bright underachiever before! Sounds good!…..sort of. Anyhow -good post MrPB -a tried and trusted central idea. It’s why reality TV is so popular now. But as far as creating intelligent and articulate panels, they can’t be set up like CiF right? I mean you’ve got the likes of me and the Stan-thing roaring and bellowing every few days. It got to be elitist to stay classy right?

MrPikeBishop responds with some gems (my emphases):

“It got to be elitist to stay classy right” Stan’s elite too y’know. C’mon, you can tell he’s a bright feller – dripping with intelligently crafted lunacy.

CiF looks like a lunatic asylum because that’s what people become online – that’s one reason why they’re so valuable: people open up. And the diversity here – nutters ‘n all – is of value too. You take the film industry; run by accountants who would rather remake the same film every 20 years because they can’t imagine what will grab people next. But the remakes are made, and then vanish – you look at films like 12 Monkeys, or Donnie Darko: those films are made by and for people who are outside the mainstream, and they are not just watched, but *loved*. They make a bit of money in the box office, and then they make film every day from that day on, in merchendise, tie-ins and DVDs – cult successes never die. Make a movie, and one day you’ll need to make another. Make a cult, and you can retire. . . . That’s one tiny aspect – what I’m talking about is utilising specialist knowledge and opinion to enhance business or service propositions – an open-source focus group, really. Wiki-reviews, kinda.

Everyman6 chimes in on the notion of open-source focus groups:

Utopian, but unlikely to save The Guardian. You can’t persuade punters to pay for other punters’ reviews, because they’re used to getting them for free. No added value. And online “focus groups” have to be vetted and weighted, because your random sampling of online nutcases isn’t representative of the wider public. Which gets you back to square one. How about a Farringdon Road Bring & Buy Sale, anyone? Georgina could bake a cake.

[Translation: How about a Guardian rummage sale? CiF editor Georgina Henry could bake a cake.]

He makes a good point but isn’t that potentially the real value of The Guardian in the end: vetting and weighing and making the internet not so random?

cktirumalai adds (making me jealous that my commenters here don’t quote James Joyce):

James Joyce, who had some personal experience of newspapers, wrote with ironic humour in “Ulysses”, “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof”. Apparently that should now be amended to “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper which has been shaped with the active assistance of bloggers”. And bloggers can indeed help, pouncing on factual and other errors and providing unusual perspectives. If newspapers chronicle today’s history–or yesterday’s– the journalist can indeed profit from the views of alert contemporaries. But I cannot somehow imagine a historian of the 1850s posting it on a website for interactive comment: he would want a more select audience. For myself, I turn to blogs as a supplement; the newspaper, on which I grew up, is my staple.

Once more: I think that networks of trust will form. Links lead to a meritocracy and your or the Guardian can chose their links carefully. This will matter in advertising and in information as well as discussion.

Back to the focus of my column — news stories going online first — Ulla adds an interesting question:

The good thing about the web is that you can update and change articles pretty easily afterwards and continously. So for most of the people publishing on the web as soon as possible is not a big deal. What I find quite interesting is that yet there does not seem to be any difference yet in “writing for web” and “writing for print publication”. This will hopefully change longterm – that the advantages and disadvantages of web and print will be used to best advantage for the issues and as a news outlet. At the moment it still feels like when tv first came along and the programmes and news were presented as if it was radio.

I think that’s right and it’s part of what I’ll be grappling with when I teach at CUNY’s j-school: We’ve spent too much time in online journalism talking about it as a new means of story-telling (read: lecuturing). The real question is how you present a constantly growing and changing story in a sane structure that lets you take advantage of constant contributions and updates and allows you to link to more details from those contributors without turning it all into a muddled mess that makes you wish for USA Today.

: See also Georgina Henry on the finish of the Big Blogger contest and a question about what’s next. An unnamed commenter — sounds like MrPikeBisho — suggests a refinement of what’s above:

One suggestion – and I don’t know how practical it is – but you have a great resource there: the punters. What an educated, articulate and, by definition, under-occupied bunch – that’s a hell of a thinktank sitting there, waiting to be tapped. I can imagine one thread a week that sets a task: come up with a slogan for this product, figure out why customers aren’t using a particular service, tell us what you really want from a gym, develop an effective youth crime policy…. Put the resource up for auction – “get the best brains in the world working on your business in their idle hours” – kind of a human equivalent of the SETI distributed processing project. You’ll end up with a new slogan from Heinz: “buy our fucking soup!”

Driving readers online: update

An update and correction to the post below: I just heard from Ed Roussel, editorial director of the Telegraph group, who says it’s not true that his paper will delay stories until after publication in print. In fact, he said, they have already shifted people to earlier schedules to get news out sooner. They are not trying to put every story online before print (which is where the Guardian is apparently headed) but they are free to put up anything short of a big scoop they want to save (which will be the same for everyone).

How did this meme start? He said at the World Association of Newspapers session in Moscow, there was discussion about content management systems and the ability to schedule publication to the web and it grew out of that. So they’re playing wack-a-mole on the tale now.

While I had him, I asked Ed whether the Telegraph has plans to invade America, like the Guardian and the Times of London. He said no. “The reality is that we want to do the best possible job of writing for our readers and the core of our readership is British people,” which includes expats. He said they already had a third of their online readership is in the U.S. And he said that the track record of British companies making a go of it in America is limited.

: LATER: More from Shane Richmond at the Telegraph about this.

Driving readers online

The Guardian just announced that it will publish stories online before it publishes them in print. Now on the one hand, that may not seem like a big deal. Quality papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post have long had good continuous news desks that feed the online maw with the latest (and too many other papers do not bother). And some papers, like The Times and the Wall Street Journal, put up their complete papers soon after they close late at night. [See my full disclosures here.]

But I think the Guardian’s move of releasing newspaper stories before they release the newspaper is a very big deal that it will end up transforming the business. A few reasons:

First, this aggressively drives readers from print to online. It is one matter to put content online after it is in print, to allow people to find it there eventually, or to give them the bulletins everyone else has so you can remain competitive. It is quite another matter to give advantage to online, to let the public know that stories will appear there first. I believe this is a crucial strategic change for the news business. It says that we know the future is online and so we will serve readers there at least as well — and when possible better — than we serve them in print, no matter that the current margins and revenue of print still beat the hell out of those online. The future is online, and so it is vital that we get ahead of the audience and draw them there, to our own places and brands, before they decide to go elsewhere. Rusbridger has talked about the green blob newspapers are stuck in, between the old, declining, but still rich medium of print and the new, more popular, but still less profitable medium of online. This, I believe, is an aggressive effort to jump over the blob.

Second, I think this will radically change the culture and operation of newsrooms — and even the very essence of the news story. I asked Rusbridger via email what the reaction of the newsroom was to his decision. He replied right after the big news of the killing of Zarkawi:

It’s a recognition of reality. As we talked about it in the morning conference today: I asked the doubters “does anyone believe we shouldn’t publish anything about Zarkawi until tomorrow morning (the news had just broken) in order to suit the newspaper publishing schedule or for fear of cannabalising our own readers”. No one said yes. Of course, it’s also about competition — if we denied readers information on the grounds we were still fixated on newspaper deadlines they would turn elsewhere.

Reaction in the newsroom is largely very positive. Ninety-five per cent of foreign correspondents are fully enthusiastic. Some staff worried by logistics and how you keep quality control. A few are asking (not unreasonably) about cannabilisation and revenue. In the end you have to ask: what’s the bigger risk: doing it, or not doing it.? Lots of reassurance a) we’re not going to get into the running news game and b) all copy will go through same editing process as before.

On the Guardian’s media podcast this week, one of the paper’s journalists worried that this might turn them into broadcast (read: cable news) reporters. It’s a legitimate concern. But I think the Guardian, in particular, can avoid that because it has largely ceded the business of breaking news — that is, the commodified news anyone can give you — to others by concentrating on perspective, writing, and original reporting.

Still, I think this can change what a news story is. Imagine a reporter putting an edited story online in the afternoon and then hearing more questions and facts from online readers. So the reporter updates for print; putting it online improves the story. And after it is in print, more information comes from readers, so the online version is improved again, perhaps even by trusted readers. This needn’t be the never-ending story, the bottomless edition. But neither does it need to be news on a stone tablet.

Yet it changes more than just the story. Another smart editor I know said recently that newspapers have to involve readers in the news but not necessarily the news process. At an Aspen Institute thing a year ago, a former network news executive said that readers should judge us by our product, not our process. No, for many reasons, the process becomes the product. The public can now question our work and contribute to it and by opening that process, we improve the news. So throwing out the newsroom clock with one time on it — deadline time — is a very big change, indeed.

And so this potentially changes the role of the reporter and editor as orchestrators of that process. See, once again, Gruner + Jahr chief Bernd Kundrun on the role of the journalist as moderator.

Warning: Metaphoric madness ensues:

Newspapers have long thought of themselves as bakeries: They gather the raw materials, measure them carefully, mix them up, let them rise, cut and shape them, bake them to a golden crisp, slather some cherry goo on top, and then put them on the shelf, waiting for someone to buy them. News was a product. No more.

So what’s the better metaphor? Try a garden: Anyone can plant seeds in it (reporters’ ideas, editors’ curiosities, the public’s questions) and many can tend to them (insert fertilizer gag here). When the fruit is ripe, it’s plucked and published; the farmers live by the garden’s schedule. And if you keep tending the garden, it continues to bloom. News is a process.

Metaphoric madness ends.

The Guardian’s change is also a tactical business move. I asked Rusbridger what the commercial side thought of the change, since they’re the ones selling the more expensive ads in print. He replied, “So far commercial side utterly on board. They see this as next logical step and appreciate the balance of risks (see above).” Having spoken with many folks on both the editorial and commercial sides of The Guardian, I see that willingness to make the next step and take the risk; it’s in their culture.

I also asked what impact their American expansion plans had ton this decision. He replied: “Certainly in our minds as we made this switch. Can you imagine east coast Americans logging onto Guardian Unlimited this morning and finding nothing on Zarkawi? Why would we want to drive them elsewhere?”

That, after all, is the key to online. It lets you serve a much larger but still focused public (once newspapers themselves focus). Guardian Newspapers Limited chief Carolyn McCall recently said that the company’s ambition is global and its focus clear:

“Our ambition is to be the leading global liberal voice…. There’s a real market for liberal journalism in America, given that there seems to be a large group of people that are very attracted by our coverage on the web, and part of that is because they cannot really get that kind of voice from their own media for a variety of reasons.

The opportunity is for the Guardian to reflect what the world is saying about America but also to bring [blogging website] Comment is Free into America so that you can get an engaged discussion on things that interest America in an intellectual and intelligent way.”

The UK’s quality national papers are approaching their strategies in very different ways. The Times of London is now publishing a print edition in New York (complete with ads for refrigerators in pounds; more on that later). The Telegraph, antimatter to the Guardian’s matter, announced that it will delay putting stories online to try to drive readers back to the dinosaur editions. [[UPDATE: See correction to this above.]]

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes about the Times’ and Guardian’s American ambitions, making vague reference to plans to publish new Guardian editions in the U.S. as well:

But newsstand sales aren’t really the point here. The Times has three million or so American unique visitors (out of a global total of 8.8 million) to its website each month. Waving around a physical copy makes that presence more tangible – and arguably ad-friendly. It is a reinforcement of presence and intent.

The Guardian, meanwhile, has 13 million unique visitors on tap, some 6.4 million of them American. That’s as solid a haul as most big city US papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, can claim. It puts the British Guardian (and Observer) Unlimited well up among the top 50 most-visited American news sites, with an advertising revenue stream already showing concomitant signs of surge. There’s commercial ambition in this mix, too.

See, too, Peter Cole in The Independent on British colonial ambition stirred up in the media world. The British national papers, with their unique voices and perspectives, stand a strong chance at gathering audience and influence around the world.

It all comes back to that apparently simple decision to put newspaper stories online before the paper is printed. It is a brave move and a big deal.

: LATER: Here‘s the Guardian’s “readers’ editor” on the shift.

Parallel lives: media and telecom

I was lucky to get the chance to spend a morning last week at Bell Labs with a few editors and reporters from the Star-Ledger, and I was struck by the many parallels between the telecom and newspaper businesses.

The first and most obvious is the business turmoil each faces as an open, competitive, and distributed world overcomes their legacies as closed, monopolistic, and centralized businesses. In that sense, the telcos are farther along this trail of tears — not yet on the other side of the gorge, but perhaps able to see the bottom — and newspapers know this disruption and uncertainty lie ahead.

But more interesting are the parallels in the future. Telcos saw themselves as technology and distribution companies and newspapers as content and distribution companies. But it turns out they are meant to be networks, connection companies that put people together with the right people and relevant information.

Gee Rittenhouse, Bell Labs’ vp for technology integration, told us that newspapers have an advantage: locality. I agree. In fact, I say it is more than that: Locality is the essence of a newspaper. Sid Ahuja, a vp in charge of software and convergence, had a wonderful perspective about media and place. He talked about his childhood in a village in India that was not connected to the outside by technology. When broadcast radio came along, he said, it made people think outside their villages, as a nation. But now, technology brings us back together in villages, albeit often virtual ones. Newspapers, too, can bring us back to the villages once they don’t have to broadcast to everyone at once in print and can become more local online.

Rittenhouse talked about how telcos now must concentrate not on the plumbing but on the “higher application level.” Translated to newspapers, they need to concentrate not on printing but on enabling people to act. Ahuja, too, talked about the need to look at application networking atop the infrastructure of the internet. Google is such an application, he said. So should newspapers be, as they use technology to help people make connections.

They each talked about relevance and trust as ways to accomplish this for their networks. Ahuja spoke of the need for metrics and systems of trust to raise the value of the network (in, for example, an email network where 60 percent of the messages are spam, are untrusted). Well, won’t it be the job of newspapers to share trust, to find not only the facts and also the correspondents — professional or amateur — to rely on? And that doesn’t just mean editors deciding who and what are trustworthy; in lab speak, that won’t scale. They need to build rules engines and content handlers to make this happen, Ahuja said. And to do that, they must learn from the people, from the network. It means helping people to share trust among themselves. This is why both industries are trying to figure out how to work with social networks.

Bell Labs, of course, has learned how to innovate in an open-source world. They invented Unix there and saw its value increase with the contributions of people. Similarly, newspapers must find open ways to work with citizen journalists. [See also yesterday’s discussion at the hyperlinked society conference on the competitive, complementary, or destructive — take your pick — relationship of amateurs to professionals.]

Finally, from a business perspective, Bell Labs in particular has had to find new efficiencies as they downsized while, of course, continuing to innovate and invest. That is precisely what newspapers must do. When I last visited there many years ago, the pride in pure research was like that which I saw at the MIT Media Lab: almost a determination not to be practical. That has changed at both institutions, I hear. At Bell Labs, the scientists talked about how happy they are to both work in the long-term — in pure research without immediate business application or impact — and to work on current projects that bring their work to the market and give them feedback as a result. There is a new practicality and from what I could see, it’s energizing. In my last parallel, I’ll say that’s what news organizations must do as well: For too long, editorial staffs stood apart from the market and I say the market will give them the feedback they need. Bell Labs is doing this by reviewing the business potential of ideas and setting up incubators where mistakes and learning can happen apart from the risk-killers of big business. News organizations need to incubate new ideas, fail at it sometimes, and then bring the best to market.

The rest of the day was spent on higher science and even this had analogues in the media world. One scientist has studied how spiders make webs to learn how to improve networks. To way oversimplify the work, one lesson learned is that spiders make local measurements to get global information. Isn’t that what happens when Google, Flickr, or gets each of us to make local measurements, and that creates global information? Other scientists talked about quantum computing; see how I inserted this into Saul Hansel’s description of media as quantum mechanics yesterday.

There is good news in all this. We all sensed an impressive new energy and enthusiasm at Bell Labs. We walked through the halls where so many brilliant people invented so much incredible technology and some of the laboratories were empty except for stacks of old cabinets and desks. It’s smaller now. So will news organizations be. But Bell Labs has found ways to innovate, invent, and adapt to a new world. So must newspapers.

The proprietors

Jay Rosen examines the Philly newspaper deal. I’m not sure that public or private ownership of papers matters nearly as much as having the strategic balls to develop and experiment.

Break my heart

David Carr’s column in today’s Times carries a conversation that does, indeed, occur often in the dusty halls of old journalism and this is precisely why they stay dusty and old:

A year ago, I was talking on the phone to the editor of a major newspaper for a column I was working on. With business concluded, we had The Conversation, the one about the large boulder that seems to be tumbling through the newspaper business. “How old are you?” he asked. Forty-nine, I told him. “Me too. Do you think we outrun this thing?”

If you have to say that, then you’ve already been overrun. How sad it is that people younger than me in this business act like such old fogeys, resistant not only to change but to opportunites. It’s as if they’re afraid of a ittle excitement in their careers; might be too much for the ol’ tickers.

I also chuckled at this line, also indicative of the kinds of things you’ll hear in newsrooms still:

Over time, the leadership at The Inquirer was pushed hard for cuts and greater profits by Anthony Ridder, chief executive of the papers — even though the paper had earned hundreds of millions of dollars after being purchased from Walter H. Annenberg in 1969.

Even though they’d earned lots of profits. Arent’ those enough profits, boss? Can’t we quit with the profits already?

It’s about growth, folks: growth in profits … and also growth in the news and what we can do with it … and even about growth in careers, which should be energized by all these dazzling new possibilities.

The news is bad news

George Johnson at Hypergene digs up Warren Buffet’s eulogy for the newspaper business and notes that, gee, we didn’t see much coverage of this in newspapers. He gets the quotes from Matt Stichnoth’s coverage of this year’s Warrenstock.

The outlook for newspapers is not great. In the TV business, a license from the government was essentially the right to a royalty stream. There were basically three highways to people’s eyeballs, and companies like P&G, Ford, Gillette, and GM would pay a significant amount of money to be get on those highways and advertise their products to a mass audience. But as the ways to get in front of people’s eyeballs increases, the value of those highways goes down. …

Q: If you were looking at newspaper publishers as possible investments, what would you use as a margin of safety?

WB: What multiple should you for a company that earns $100 million per year whose earnings are falling by 5% per year rather than rising by 5% per year? Newspapers face the prospect of seeing their earnings erode indefinitely. It’s unlikely that at most papers, circulation or ad pages will be larger in five years than they are now. That’s even true in cities that are growing.

But most owners don’t yet see this protracted decline for what it is. The multiples on newspaper stocks are unattractively high. They are not cheap enough to compensate for the companies’ earnings power. Sometimes there’s a perception lag between the actual erosion of a business and how that erosion is seen by investors. Certain newspaper executives are going out and investing on other newspapers. I don’t see it. It’s hard to make money buying a business that’s in permanent decline. If anything, the decline is accelerating. Newspaper readers are heading into the cemetery, while newspaper non-readers are just getting out of college. The old virtuous circle, where big readership draws a lot of ads, which in turn draw more readers, has broken down.

Charlie and I think newspapers are indispensable. I read four a day. He reads five. We couldn’t live without them. But a lot of people can now. This used to be the ultimate bulletproof franchise. It’s not anymore.

CM: I used to think that GM was a bulletproof franchise. Now I’d put GM and newspapers in the “Too Hard” pile. If something is too hard to do, we look for something that isn’t too hard. What could be more obvious?

WB: It may be that no one has followed the newspaper business as closely as we have for as long as we have–50 years or more. It’s been interesting to watch newspaper owners and investors resist seeing what’s going on right in front of them. It used to be you couldn’t make a mistake managing a newspaper. It took no management skill–like TV stations. Your nephew could run one.

No more.