Posts about newsinnovation

Fighting the future

A herd of journalism-school deans wrote a predictable but also naive and possibly dangerous — and certainly not strategically forward-thinking — attack on media cross-ownership and the FCC’s loosening of its rules in today’s Times op-ed page.

They argue that the government should regulate local broadcast and make content demands on stations. That’s the dangerous part: government regulating news. The deans acknowledge the peril:

Journalists are instinctively libertarian, at least when it comes to journalism. We like the conversation about journalism and the federal government to begin and end with a robust defense of the First Amendment. That’s why journalists have not been leading participants in the debate over the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of broadcasting, even though the future of our profession and its public mission is at stake

Yes, they said libertarian, not liberal. I hope that’s their sense of collective irony.

The naive bits are that government — more than companies and editors — should be held accountable for the quality of journalism, and that that broadcast journalism was ever worth a damn. At most and best, radio and TV distilled and read what newspapers published (and, yes, fewer radio stations today bother doing even that). Reporting on TV news has long been defined as covering fires and press conferences. It’s not about investigation. It’s not about a multiplicity of voices. It’s not about holding the powerful to account. It’s about stand-ups. For these deans not to acknowledge that — for them not to hold these stations and their producers and reporters responsible for what they call journalism and demand a higher standard — is itself shocking. That broadcast outlets have smaller staffs is, the deans say, “a real loss for American democracy.” Oh, come on. They’re just more efficient at covering fires. The deans sound like union organizers trying to protect headcount.

What disturbs me more about their op-ed is the lack of acknowledgment of the business realities of our industry: both broadcast and print outlets cannot operate as they have and that is why they need to consider merging — to survive.

But what disturbs me most is the lack of strategic ambition and imagination the deans exhibit. When the Times wrote a similar, knee-jerk editorial the other day decrying media consolidation, I argued that TV news could be improved if it merged with print and vice versa. I’d quite like to see the deans consider the idea that news is now omnimedia and it makes sense to stop separating newsrooms by old limitations of the means of distribution. It makes sense to get both newsrooms to produce the news in new ways. It could only help broadcast newsrooms to get a sense of real reporting and to get the work of hundreds of print journalists with cameras. And it could only help print newsrooms to be forced to think and work across media.

I’d have hoped that the deans would see the possibilities not only for the industry but also for their students. Now is not the time to preserve the past but to reinvent the future.

(Disclosure: It almost goes without saying but clearly I have a dog in this hunt as a journalism prof. The deans who wrote the Times op-ed are: Roderick P. Hart, dean of the University of Texas journalism school; Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy; Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland journalism school; Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School; John Levine, dean of the Northwestern journalism school; Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri journalism school; David M. Rubin, dean of the Syracuse school of public communications; and Ernest Wilson, dean of the University of Southern California school of communication.)

An exchange of networked journalism apps

One of the best possible results of the Networked Journalism Summit, I’m told, is collaborative work by WNYC and the Ft. Myers News-Press to create a tool to enable crowdsourced collections of data from the public (a la WNYC’s Are You Being Gouged, which required lots of manual input and analysis).

This inspires another thought: Wouldn’t it be great if news organizations of all sizes and shapes could share applications that would enable networked journalism? Imagine if any news org could get their hands on that crowdsourcing tool to start mobilizing their audiences to go get information. Imagine if someone created a tool to make it easy to compile news reports via Twitter or photos via Flickr and make it ready for embedded publishing with an optional admin tool to clean things up. Imagine if folks wanted to follow in the footsteps of MyHeimat or NorthwestVoice and reverse publish content from the public into print with less cut-and-paste hassle. What other ideas could you imagine?

And this leads to another question I sent to the folks working on that app: What platform would be best for this? One thought is Django. Others like Drupal. I don’t know enough to know. Your suggestions?

Every page a home page

I went to Aftonbladet.se, the site of the large Swedish tabloid, to check out what Martin Stabe pointed me to: the impact of a paper’s site adding blog links to those bloggers. It’s a nice feature with popup profiles of the bloggers at each link.

But I discovered something even more interesting: We’ve heard news sites preach the gospel of making “every page a home page” since readers more and more are coming into content directly from search and links and not from a packaged home page. This presents the challenge of how to promote and lure readers to more content.

Well, Aftonbladet seems to have taken the every-page-a-home-page strategy quite literally: As I clicked around from story to story, the bottom half of each page was filled with the content from the home page. The home page followed me around, trying to tempt me to try something else they’d packaged and recommended.

The aggregated Times

Relevant to yesterday‘s post about the NYTimes Company’s International Herald Tribune outsourcing part of its business coverage to Reuters, Times Online in London says talks are underway for a deal with Mothership Times as well. Clearly, this would be a way for both to compete with the soon-to-be-invigorated Wall Street Journal.

Entrepreneurial lessons

I’m trying to catalogue some of the lessons I learned in my entrepreneurial journalism course at CUNY. There’ll be more, especially after the students and I share our postmortem in the final class, Wednesday. But here’s a start.

The students presented a dozen businesses to a dozen jurors who had it in their power to award up to $50,000 in seed money (thanks to a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation). I have said from the start that I couldn’t be too open about the class because these are the students’ proprietary ideas and if one of them has the next Google (or New York Times, for that matter), I don’t want to ruin it. So I’ll be brief (Saul Hansell already deftly and succinctly described many of them). And, besides, maybe one of you would like to invest:

The jurors were quite engaged by a proposal to have the public help decide what followup stories journalists should do. Other likely grantees (if the entrepreneurs answer some questions and meet some conditions): a multimedia blog serving BedStuy; a service to help high-school athletes sell themselves; a content/social service helping people in their late 20s and early 30s with personal finance even if they think it is boring; and an already-started online magazine for and by Muslim women (which has already sold an impressive 1,500 subscriptions at $20 each). The rest did not receive grants but as I told the students after the judging, I have taken businesses to some of the people on that very jury who turned them down, but those businesses went on to get funding and launch. That’s how startups work: seduction. There are more very good proposals in the bunch: a hyperlocal tourist site in Oregon (it was too small for the majority of judges but that’s precisely why it was a particular favorite of some of the others); a social site for teen girls built on existing social networks; a metablog and search engine for the best of the music blogs; a hyperlocal green blog, community, and directory; a social network for big-team sports fans; a series of videos about successful black businesswomen; and a site that captures what’s really happening in leading cities around the world from journalists working there.

The jurors — again, the list is here; they brought many distinct perspectives — were, I’m glad to say, quite engaged in the process. They asked very good questions — that’s what yields many of my lessons learned, below. They were passionate in their deliberations. And here’s the best part: Jurors volunteered to act as mentors to the students’ businesses. I couldn’t have asked for more from them.

So, some lessons:

* You can never be short and clear enough in your elevator pitch. This was one of the first things I told the students when we started together. When my old boss Steve Newhouse talked with the class, he told them about a company he’d bought, explaining what it did in 17 words, which he counted on his fingers as he told the students they should all do likewise. But at our jurying session last week, I saw the judges get confused a few times, and hearing these pitches through their ears, I understood why. In Hollywood, this is called high-concept: the show you can describe in one phrase (‘It’s Cheers meets Survivor and the audience gets to vote Cliff off the bar’). We make fun of that; it’s a sign of dumbed-down TV. But startups are different from sitcoms. If you can’t describe what you’re doing — to customers as well as investors — in 17 words, then you’re probably trying to do too much or you haven’t worked hard enough to define what you are doing or you simply aren’t describing it well and you’re going to lose people.

* I also wasn’t tough enough on the competitive analyses. They all did them, but the judges hammered hard on the marketplace. It is almost inevitable that when someone with a startup is asked about competition, he or she will answer, “none.” But I told the students that’s never true and, besides, in a networked world, you actually want company in your space. It gives you something to link to and it gives you an analogue others will understand. You can always be better than your competition, unless there is simply too much of it (which was the judges’ issue with a few of the students’ businesses).

* In one of the early classes, Jim Kennedy, VP for strategy at the Associated Press, heard all of the students’ then-still-nascent ideas, gave feedback to each, and then said: Well, guys you’ve all proposed websites; what’s up with that? We felt properly chastened and old-fartish. This is what inspired more than one of the students to build their businesses where they should have been conceived, atop existing social networks and platforms. And during the jurying, Fred Wilson also pushed one student to include SMS or Twitter feeds from the audience’s mobile phones as news. We should have spent some more time cataloguing the possibilities. That’s what the web is really all about: new possibilities, new opportunities. Hansell is right in his blog post: A critical lesson from the class is that media enterprises can be started atop existing platforms. So next time, we will catalogue them.

* I also required the students to formulate marketing plans — which, in most cases, means an analysis of social and viral potential. It was very hard for them to come up with comparable audience numbers and that is the underpinning of any media business plan. I’m not sure what to do about that. I also pushed students to do market research: to interview their customers (it’s just reporting). Those who listened that that benefiteed (one business, for example, changed its target audience when it found that the original target wasn’t as interested as they thought).

* I’m glad I spent a lot of time on advertising, getting down to the details of CPM, CPC, CPA, RPM, and all that. It was foreign to all the students — as it is to many or most journalists — but as they well understood, this is how they’re going to eat. The idea of selling ads is properly daunting for them, but the good news is that ad networks are beginning to emerge that may help support media enterprises such as these. At the end of a three-hour class session on ads, I asked whether the students were OK with what they’d just heard and one said, with a wry grin, “Well, that’s journalism.” A fellow student didn’t see or hear his irony and jumped down his throat, lecturing him about why we have to understand how to sustain and support journalism or else they won’t have jobs and we won’t have reporting. It was one of those moments in class you can’t pay for.

* My not-so-hidden agenda in the class was to teach journalists about business and sustaining journalism and I hope that mission was accomplished. Whether they start their own businesses or become managers or just so they can make wise career choices, I believe it’s necessary to understand the pressures and opportunities presented by the change in the economics of media.

* Journalistic entrepreneurship is not an oxymoron. To my amazement, every single one of the students said they wanted to start these businesses; I was hoping one or two might be so ambitious and independent. Now, of course, real job offers with real salaries will properly distract some of them. But the fact that these young journalists want to think entrepreneurially surprises and delights me. The fact that they realize they may need to work independently should surprise no one. It is a lesson to the industry: Give this kind of talent an opportunity to invent and innovate and they will.

* But we need an incubator. These businesses need ongoing advice and nurturing, most do. Just during the semester, I quickly learned that each student-entrepreneur and business needed even more individual attention than I’d anticipated; they and their needs were unique. If we are going to get innovation in the news and media businesses, then we need to bring help and resources to the effort. Just as big, old media companies can’t just sit there and think that the future will come to them — when, instead, it’s passing them by — so the industry has to actively support innovation with incubation. I have plans. More on that another day.

Bottom line: I loved being in this class. The course itself was a risky venture but it surpassed my expectations. As I’ve said here, I felt as if I were on the board of a dozen exciting startups. It was energizing working with the students’ creativity and passion — which was only intensified, frankly, by the possibility of real money (a stronger motivator than grades). I hope this also sends a small message to the industry about the possibilities for and need for innovation. And I hope at least one of these students might end up being the Pulitzer, Hearst, Ochs, Sarnoff, or Paley of this century. Could happen.