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Archive for September, 2012

In his address to the Arizona Newspapers Association, Steve Buttry summed up the argument against newspaper websites setting paywalls or pay meters (and it is just newspapers; you never hear of TV stations debating whether to charge for access to their sites). I’ll quote the part that sums up his summation:

“Most of the forward-looking paths to prosperity work better with a larger audience, and paywalls (or meters or whatever you want to call them) limit your audience. Most of the paths to prosperity demand that we reach a younger audience, and paywalls continue a model in the comfort zone of newspapers’ aging and dying audience.”

There is an argument to be made in favor of paywalls, and Warren Buffett has summed it up – become indispensable:

“Make the paper so good that I get the shakes if I don’t have it.”

This is not an outrageous theory or one new to newspapers. I have pointed before to a slimmed-down version of a Newspaper Next presentation about creating an “experience” in the news pages, the argument being that people pay all the time for an experience rather than the actual product being sold. Under the experience theory, people will seek out and buy a news product online if it gives them a good emotional jolt or something to talk about. It becomes a valuable part of the day by the effect it has on their day.

Where this theory falls apart is the way that real-world newspaper publishers are trying to keep their businesses afloat.

You cannot create indispensable stories “so good that I get the shakes if I don’t have it” if you are paying the story-creators so little that they make as little – or less – money than first-year teachers. Good stories come only from good minds, and good minds may take a first job paying that little, but they also will soon find a way to something better, and then your flash-in-the-pan indispensability departs with them.

But low pay has been built into newspapers’ current cost structure. It was the way that publishers dealt with, first, the demand for maintaining profit margins and, in the recession and crash of advertising revenue, the need simply to stay afloat. Newsrooms across the country – not all of them, but many – tried to maintain as many staff positions as they could by squeezing pay. Now they are stuck.

If you are stuck with a revenue level that won’t support filling your staff with indispensable storytellers, you need to rethink your staff and content model, slim down the staff size and build up the pay. Otherwise you resign yourself to forever being completely dispensable.

You can’t be indispensable and poorly written at the same time. In that case, Steve’s point is completely correct: You will get online subscriptions from current newspaper addicts, the people who are so used to reading you that they just can’t do without. But they will die off, and you will have nothing that non-subscribers find worthwhile, so you also will die off.

Paywall defenders could argue that there is no “prosperity” to be found in unpaid models so far, but Steve is absolutely correct that in order to survive you need to bring in new consumers, new readers, new audiences.

The most recent real example I’ve seen of this is here in Richmond, where Bill’s Barbecue recently went out of business. Bill’s was a Richmond institution. When I moved here in 2001, I saw Bill’s everywhere. I figured it had to have really good barbecue for it to be so widespread. Then I went into one near home and bought some. Lord, that was some awful barbecue. It was soupy. It smelled funny. I started asking around, and to date no one I have met in Richmond thinks Bill’s had good barbecue (everyone praises the pies, but you don’t build a big barbecue restaurant chain based on the dessert). It was skating on a decades-old reputation, frequented apparently by old-Richmonders who fondly clung to memories (although not many of them; there were two Bill’s within a mile of my house, and neither was ever busy, at any time of day). Finally, the family that owns the business decided to stop.

This is where many newspapers are. There is a base of loyal customers who are willing to pay, though they lament what has been lost in the past 10 years. But there is less and less reason for any new customers to come through the door, and to the extent there is any at all, tighter and tighter paywall restrictions cut off the potential new-customer base. At some point, publishers will feel it necessary to open the walls, but by then their product may be an afterthought, a niche publication in a universe of alternative news sources.

With or without a paywall, you can’t attract an audience when you have little worth reading.

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I’m gradually getting around to the ONA sessions I was not able to attend last week, and here’s one I definitely wish I had: David Wright of NPR discussing online design. He makes a point echoing one of the things said a day earlier by Amy Webb (included in this post) – get the online experience right or the content doesn’t matter.

(Video of Amy’s session. You can find video of David’s presentation here, but to keep up with the full thing you also need the slideshow in a separate window.)

But David had a better illustration than Amy did. Both asked, more or less, what problem are you trying to solve? David illustrated it with an example from the phone industry. In the post-monopoly, pre-mobile era, Sprint built its brand with a television commercial declaring its service was so good, “you can hear a pin drop.” In the post-mobile era, Verizon struck on the central issue for consumers: “Can you hear me now?” In other words, we went from a landline era, in which customers cared most about how clear the sounds on their phone were, to the mobile one, in which they cared most about whether they could hear anything at all.

In that metaphor, many journalists are stuck at the landline stage, but most of our customers have moved on to mobile phones.

What Amy said better than David was that news people stink at thinking in terms of Web design because we are most concerned with the end destination – our content. But since David’s entire presentation was design, he dwelled longer on that issue (how people get to the content in the first place) and showed just one example of the problem, the home page of a newspaper’s website, where the top navigation had, he said, 152 options (I assume he’s including drop-downs). The only reason for that can be journalists – every editor in charge of each section wants to be sure each “critical” part of his/her section is easy to get to from the home page. It does not help the online reader. Compare the typical news site’s design with what you find on an app designed for tablets, or (like the new business site Quartz) one designed to mimic tablet apps.

What they both said was to design with the online audience in mind. Create the best possible experience and people will come back. Without a good experience, the content alone won’t do it.

All of this echoes an idea from a decade earlier that didn’t (in my opinion) find much acceptance in newspapers: the “experience” newspaper. The argument then, said almost exactly as David put it in his presentation, is that people will pay for a satisfying experience, even if the essential content (the actual content or something similar) is available somewhere else. If it’s true, that more than anything else might be the hope for getting young people who don’t have any news-subscribing habit to pay for news. If it’s not, the future of paid news – aside from major national or regional brands – might be tied entirely to the number of older readers who already are in the habit of paying for news – in other words, already in decline.

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Following are the notes I have passed to my colleagues on the Online News Association’s 2012 conference (and for more check the ONA Newsroom):

J-Lab’s “pre-convention” sessions on Thursday produced the information I thought was most immediately useful. In one, editors from The Seattle Times and KQED talked about their efforts to create a network of community news partners. The Times’ model was low-maintenance (requiring only “1 or 2 hours a week”) and easily replicable. KQED’s was much more difficult to get going and maintain.

The Times has 55 local blogs – from neighborhood blogs of the sort like the Church Hill People’s News or the West of the Boulevard News here in Richmond to single-issue blogs on things like beer or bicycling – signed up as “community news partners.” Essentially the blogs agree to let the Times aggregate their RSS feeds; the Times’ editors have a dashboard built in WordPress to let them choose what stories they think are interesting, and the headlines (ONLY the headlines) then appear on the Times’ website, with the links pointing directly to the blogs. The partners agree to give the Times exclusive access to any photos that they get (the Times’ hope is that in a giant, breaking-news situation one of the blogs will have someone there first). The Times agrees to let the blogs do the same kind of headline-linking to the Times’ site and agrees to provide any of its photos to the blogs for free upon request (with credit given). UPDATE: I forgot to mention that each Sunday the Times publishes a page of excerpts from top blog posts.

The Times has gotten news stories – including A1 stories – that otherwise would have been missed (the Times includes a note with the story saying the information appeared first in X blog), and there is survey evidence that the partnerships have improved the newspaper’s image among local residents.

KQED’s partnerships are much more complex because the station wanted full, content-producing (audio and video, since KQED has both a radio station and a TV station) partnerships. That meant avoiding any site that advocates policy positions (the Times has no problem as long as the blog is transparent about its advocacy) and providing training to get content that meets its broadcast standards.

I think the Times model actually exposes a vulnerability that newspapers ignore at their peril. If a TV station were to seek such an extensive, low-maintenance network, it could greatly enhance its website as a community hub, build on the station’s promotional and community-engagement efforts (which already exceed what newspapers do) and effectively corner the market on community news. Assuming newspapers continue to throw up paywalls and TV stations do not, the newspaper site retreats into niche status (though the niche is elite, high-information readers), while the TV station that harnesses the blog network cements itself as the go-to place for “what’s happening now?” information.

* * * *

Amy Webb, Webbmedia Group’s Tech Trends (Storify coverage, and video of the session)

Amy’s job is to spot trends in technology and media so she can help her clients adapt to disruption. The bulk of her talk was on the broader process for how her company does that. But for ONA she devoted a lot of attention to the issue of online video by news organizations, who she says are awful at online video. The problem we have, in her view, is that we are content-oriented people, so we focus on the content, not the online experience. That is backwards of how it should be. She says you should focus on creating an online experience, not on the content. As an example she pointed to is HuffingtonPost Live: The video is extremely forgettable at this point, but the online dashboard provides a web-native experience, geared for the multitasking that people do online. She says that the video inevitably will improve, but having the best video-exploration experience puts the site in the driver’s seat.

Key quote: “Don’t replicate the TV experience.” People online don’t want to just sit and only have the video play.

Near-term trends she sees for news/content:

–“Atomic”-based news. That is “atomic” in the sense of news being broken into its component bits for better personalization. In other words, for any given story, there is a basic story for the casual reader, a version with more context for those with a higher level of interest, and an expert-level package. This is made possible by rapidly improving algorithms, such as are used by Google and Amazon, tracking the user’s history and interest.

–Algorithm-created content. This would be the automated translation of spreadsheet-based information into full sentences and paragraphs. The algorithms are increasingly sophisticated and produce better and better results. I think something like this could be huge, cost-wise, for such things as sports and cops, so you could hire data-entry people instead of writers. (10/9 UPDATE: This is a company that sells the software.)

–There’s a huge opening for verticals targeting women – but NOT “mom blogs” or “mom” anything, which is overdone and misses the majority of women. She means mainstream topics but reported with a female audience and women’s particular concerns in mind. In the bulk of news, women are an afterthought or absent, so women are hungry to see themselves reflected in the world of news and information.

–Apple vs. Android: Google has a new version of Google Maps coming for Android phones (you may recall that Apple booted Google Maps from the iPhone, with poor reviews for its replacement – one tech guy I talked to in SF says his iPhone can’t even map his home address in NYC). It’s called Google Now. She thinks it will be huge for Android and tilt the field against Apple. Quote: “Google Now will make Siri look like somebody’s high school project.”

–Wearable technology. She brought in a prototype of a purse that recharges your phone. You just drop the phone inside. There’s no plugging it in, no special place to put the phone. She says you probably also will see the same technology incorporated into clothes so that you will have a phone-charging pocket.

Longer-term trend:

–Augmented reality. You may have seen the online demonstration of Google glasses, a pair of glasses that gives the wearer a display of information about things the person looks at. She has seen similar technology in contact lenses.

* * * *

The opening day’s keynote speaker was José Antonio Vargas (Storify coverage, video), the former Washington Post reporter who revealed his illegal immigration status. His main point was an argument to stop using the term “illegal alien.” He made a good point, partly on the legal/semantic issue of it being a civil violation to be in the country without documentation, not a criminal one, and partly on the basis of this: “In what other context do we ever describe a person as illegal?” Someone who drives at age 14 has broken the criminal law but is described as an underage driver; someone who drives drunk has broken the criminal law but is described as a drunken driver; neither is an illegal driver. He advocates using the term “undocumented immigrant,” which is both more precise and accurate.

(Poynter rounds up some of the counterarguments.)

* * * *

The Friday lunch “keynote” was an interview of Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo. Excellent interview. (Coverage, if you’re interested, or video.) One big bit of news: Twitter is developing tools to make it easier to curate event-oriented tweets. Also, pretty much all of Twitter’s development efforts are targeted at mobile users. Tweetdeck is its desktop tool and the only thing for desktops that is contemplated. (Costolo actually referred to it as something like “Twitter Pro for journalists.”)

UPDATE: Jeff Sonderman at Poynter.org has a list of 12 bite-size takeaways from the conference, largely different than mine.

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My first half day at ONA12 — actually the pre-convention sessions sponsored by J-Lab — and I already heard information I had long been hoping for. Bob Payne of the Seattle Times and Bruce Koon of public radio’s KQED talked about their sites’ partnerships with local blogs (they range from neighborhood news to topic blogs, such as a blog just about beer). The Seattle Times’ is the one I have been most interested in hearing about since my own background is on the print side, and Payne says it has proven valuable to the Times both from a newsgathering standpoint and from a community-engagement standpoint. Koon had similar reports of success, but I’ll focus on the Times. There are 55 blogs in the Seattle area that are signed up (there is a memorandum of understanding, but it’s hardly a formal process) as partners. Essentially it’s a link swap: The partners agree to let the Times post their headlines, and those link directly to the sites. Editors at the Times choose which headlines they want to use on their site, so they can skip any story they don’t like. And each week, the Times prints in the paper a one-page collection of the best of what they have seen on the partner sites. Actively curating these sites each day has led the Times to stories it might have otherwise missed, and a survey has shown that the partnership gives people in the community a more positive feeling about the Times. Seems like a win-win.

The objections I have heard from print editors to exploring this kind of community generally are fears about the reliability of the information on blogs, fears of liability, and wanting to keep away from the open advocacy of some local blogs. Payne said most of that is mitigated by the fact of having just a link to an external site. The Times doesn’t host any of the stories itself. Plus, there are editors reviewing each story before the link is posted, so they can pass judgment on each story’s reliability, but stories are not held to the same standards as staff — they aren’t supposed to be. If a story is important enough, the Times will assign a staffer to follow up. And as for the advocacy, the sites in the partnership that practice that — such as one for a group that writes about bicycle-related interests — are very transparent about it. In addition, the partnerships can be dropped by either party at any time, so if a group suddenly changes its approach there is an easy avenue to end the partnership.

Since news staffs are smaller than ever and will not ever get back to where they were, and since there are more community blogs than ever making more information easily available, this kind of relationship is one that would benefit any size news organization. It builds links in the community, and it helps the news organization put itself at the hub of the community conversation.

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Last week I traveled to Danville, Va., for a part of the job that disappeared in recent years because of the economy (no travel budget means no travel), meeting one-on-one with reporters to critique their writing and talk about what they can do to become better writers. When I meet with a reporter who honestly wants advice and will discuss his or her writing, it recharges me, and it had been a long time since I was able to have any meetings like this, so I was overdue for a charge. When I started doing these in 2002, I took a kitchen sink approach, addressing everything from style and grammar to storytelling. It didn’t take long for me to realize that was not a good approach. Being nitpicky helped no one and swamped the more worthwhile parts of the discussion. Since then, what I focus on is more or less what Ernest Hemingway described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. (I read it in “Byline: Ernest Hemingway,” a collection of Hemingway’s journalism.) “Monologue” recounts a conversation between Hemingway (Y.C., for “your correspondent”) and a young writer he called Maestro (Mice) during a fishing trip. The relevant portion:

Mice: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

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Once again I have attempted to be a customer of a news organization’s online advertising system, and once again I am left wondering if such systems were designed by incompetents or sadistic, anti-journalism geniuses bent on our industry’s destruction. Part of my local paper’s attempt to combat craigslist is to offer free ads to anyone seeking to unload things for $300 or less. I have a couple of pieces of furniture, they have gotten no response on craigslist, and I’m not yet ready to just donate them to the thrift store, so I thought I’d place one of these “Cool Cheap Stuff!” ads (yes, there’s no comma between cool and cheap, so immediately you know no one ran the page’s name past anyone who got good grades for grammar and punctuation). The page in the paper says the online system for placing an ad is “easy-to-use” (again, yes, it is hyphenated even though it is not modifying anything) and available 24 hours a day. Turns out, it is neither.

As a potential customer, the whole experience left me exasperated.

As a news person, it absolutely enraged me. If I did my job as badly as the person who designed that ad system did his, everything that passed in front of me would be rearranged and rendered into dingbat symbols. On the news side, we have to give everything at least a second look, usually more. The equivalent online I would think would be answering the question, “Does this thing work?” Because no, this thing did not work. If getting revenue from online operations is the future of the news business, this kind of thing fills me with despair for the future.

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