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Archive for January, 2012

U.K.’s The Guardian, which is on the forefront in many experiments with public participation and transparency in the news, recently launched a variation on opening daily story budgets to the public. Jeff Sonderman writes for Poynter.org:

“This is a noteworthy experiment in both form and function. Readers can quickly gauge the leading stories of the day, how they’re unfolding and what the public might contribute. The result is a pleasant mix of facts, analysis, process and discussion — an illustration of news as a process, not a product.”

I can easily see how this would be burdensome for a small newsroom, but it’s not an all-or-nothing idea. The interaction and transparency is what’s important, regardless of how frequent the contact is.

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I’ve been meaning to get to this very short, simple post for a week, so let me tell anyone out there who is considering administering a contest: Even if it’s only an annual contest, it’s going to suck up your time, and if you are diligent about keeping time for yourself you will find you don’t get much done on the contest.

Anyway: I found the above TED talk extremely interesting for the context it lends to the current disruption in media. It tells about the advent of pop-up books for children. If you think about it, that is the beginning of animation — someone creates drawings with parts that the users can see move in front of them. You can understand how children’s literature is forever changed by this, just as the first motion picture, the first talking motion picture, the first television program, etc., changed how people conceived of how stories could reach them. As I have pointed out often, we are in an accelerated period of evolution in the changing nature of storytelling. It’s important to remember it didn’t start when we entered the business, otherwise we would all go crazy (not that we won’t anyway).

Related to this, last week Nieman Journalism Lab highlighted some stats from Facebook about one element of the current curve in storytelling’s evolution, reporting + social media interaction. The good news: commentary and analysis — in other words, depth, produced by people who know what they are talking about — does well. The hazard: so does humor. People, if you have just one takeaway today, let it be this: Funny is hard. If you try the humor route, start soft, start slow, start very non-partisan, and pretend every member of every branch of your family not only will read it but has your cell phone number.

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John Robinson fooled me. He started a post about the need for innovation with questions that seemed geared to curmudgeonly, 20th-century answers. For instance:

What would you do if:
* Half of your employees — including those in circulation — don’t subscribe?
* Half of your employees — including those in the newsroom — don’t read the paper (except for their own stories)?
* Half of your employees don’t subscribe to your e-newsletters?

I worked up a good, frothy dudgeon and was thinking to myself, “What has happened to John since he left newspapers that he is taking such a troglodyte approach?” — and then I got to the end of his post. So, spoiler alert, he was not writing in inverted-pyramid-style. It was more like pyramid-style. The end held the answers to my questions.

The “troglodyte” approach would be to require employees to subscribe and read (maybe quiz them, to test whether they really read), but, as John writes, a better idea is to ask your employees why: Why don’t they subscribe? Why don’t they read? If the only thing they read is the stories that carry their byline, then the only thing they care about is what was changed between writing and publishing, which means they don’t care about the content. If the reporters don’t care, why should anyone else? Ask them that. Ask what they SHOULD be writing about to make people read.

Related to this, Peter Osnos had an article in The Atlantic resurrecting the idea that aggregators should pay for the news they aggregate, which ignores the fact that no one pays the aggregators, except advertisers, which are not at current ad rates a source of revenue that would sustain news organizations. Paying for aggregation is an idea that traditional journalists love, but if most news organizations started charging with a hard paywall, almost all aggregators would stop looking and aggregating — just as most people do not subscribe.

Get to the basics: Whether or not your site has a paywall or a metered paywall, it’s important to ask what people will pay for and what will make them keep coming back. The same things that make your site worth aggregating are the things that make someone consider subscribing, so in the end whether you go the free model or the paywall model you hit the same capitalist question: Is it worth it?

And you can’t change what people want to read. Among the gathering evidence: a Washington Post story.

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Google logo
Writing for Poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman explains the longer-term implications of Google starting to incorporate your social connections in search results, so that whatever results Google might feed you for a search will be influenced by whatever your friends have looked at:

“The point for news organizations and journalists is that it’s more important than ever to build strong social followings and to optimize content for sharing. Social media is becoming an engine that drives more than just Facebook and Twitter’s own referrals.”

In other words, it’s another argument for engaging the audience, whether you like it or not.

However, I have a feeling the search model is going to change yet again. The whole “what your friends are reading will influence what you see” thing is wearing on me in my Washington Post Social Reader. Apparently a heck of a lot of my friends read not only celebrity gossip, which I don’t care to see at all, and Apple fanboy love but also a lot more fluff than I ever expected to come to me via anything with “Washington Post” in its name — of the top six headlines at the time of this writing, two are Apple stories, one is about a Korean pop group and one is about paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton’s sister. Social search, in other words, is making my social reader less and less useful to me, to the point I expect I’ll stop using it at all — until they fix it, at which point the model will shift again.

1/12/12 UPDATE: Good additional details from Justin Ellis at Nieman Journalism Lab. … Still haven’t seen anyone share my “Hell is other people” take on it.

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I had two thoughts as I read, belatedly, Megan Garber’s piece from last month for Nieman Journalism Lab about the new political team at Buzzfeed and how they approach reporting. First: Wow, that really sounds like exactly the right model for the online world. Second: How the hell are they going to make money from that? Which of course is the eternal Underpants Gnomes issue of online news.

But then it occurred to me that the Buzzfeed strategy may be a key part of how more traditional news organizations might survive into the digital future. More on that in a minute. First, what Buzzfeed is doing, from Garber’s article:

“The idea is to continue the type of work he’s been doing at Politico — reported blogging — and to combine that content with the social elements of Buzzfeed. So: Reporting, amplified. Reporting, viral-ized. … [The political team] will be starting from the premise … that people are now mostly (and increasingly) getting their news from social sources like Twitter, Facebook, and aggregators. Journalism is increasingly part of the social web.

“… And within the social space, Smith points out, one of the things people most like to share is news that is actually, you know, new. … [P]eople are increasingly aware of themselves not just as consumers of content, but as curators of it. They increasingly appreciate the role they play as, if not breakers of news, then disseminators of it.”

Buzzfeed’s aim is to “build the first true social news organization … the definitive social news organization.”

An early return, from Philip Bump at Mediaite, is positive – the headline is “What Buzzfeed’s New Politics Team Is Doing Right.”

It helps, of course, not to have to worry about doing all that while still producing a traditional news product such as a newspaper or TV show. But what if you started from the premise of reporters doing as Buzzfeed envisions? From there, part of the role of an editor could be pulling items out of the stream to cobble them into what is needed for the traditional product. Of necessity, that might well look very different than a traditional news story – but as I often argue and Bump’s piece at Mediaite points out, the traditional news story isn’t always needed:

“The long news story is an artificial construct, one largely predicated on filling a certain amount of printed space. Articles often don’t need to be 400-500 words with compelling intros and robust context – they certainly don’t always need to be.”

The result could be an organization with the nimbleness to operate in the online environment and build the kind of audience engagement that keeps people coming back, both to the short updates you get in social media and whatever more you produce on your main site, in the paper or on the air.

That’s where the Gnomes come in.

This morning I was reading Clay Shirky’s thoughts about the “leaky paywall” or threshold model for news sites, which lets visitors see a set number of free articles before requiring a payment for any subsequent articles. Shirky is among those who have long been skeptical that an absolute paywall – requiring a payment for any and all viewing of content – would work for news sites, but he clearly sees merit in setting a threshold. But his main purpose in the post is examining how the threshold model might end up reshaping the content of news sites. This stems from the fact that a small minority of the online users are paying the freight, so keeping that audience engaged is key:

“Threshold charges subject the logic of the print bundle — a bit of everything for everybody, slathered with ads — to two new questions: What do our most committed users want? And what will turn our most frequent readers into committed users? Here are some things that won’t: More ads. More gossip. More syndicated copy. … When a paper abandons the standard paywall strategy, it gives up on selling news as a simple transaction. Instead, it must also appeal to its readers’ non-financial and non-transactional motivations: loyalty, gratitude, dedication to the mission, a sense of identification with the paper, an urge to preserve it as an institution rather than a business.”

In other words, most people do not – and will never – pay for content, but some will pay for some specific content, and much more importantly that small number of people will pay to ensure that the general type of content you produce is around when they need it, because they enjoy it or they think it makes their world a better place, or they just can’t imagine their world without you around.

That last part, at least, is something that traditional journalists can identify with.

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The video carries the title “Best Local News Bloopers of 2011,” but it’s quite a range on on-air mishaps, from accidents and flubs to anchors mocking interview subjects on the air (what the heck are they thinking?) and one case of what appears to be someone changing a reporter’s script to make him look foolish (I’m not sure why else a reporter would end his story by saying that one thing money can’t buy is “yo mama — she’s for free, and everyone knows it”).

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This is funny, but I hope the people who got in trouble are the ones who inserted words into the on-air script just to make a public spectacle of their co-worker. There are worse things than getting a guy to say, “I love lamp,” on the air, but letting that go would just encourage them to try something else later. You don’t insert your personal, inside jokes in headlines in the newspaper or online, so I don’t know why anyone would think it’s OK to use a TV broadcast for such a thing.

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