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Posts Tagged ‘audience’

The news coming out of a series of meetings that the new owner of the Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, had with the paper’s employees this week sounded both encouraging and discouraging to longtime news people like me.

It was encouraging because so much of it reinforced the values we have always been taught.

For instance, this was the first paragraph of the story by Post writers Paul Farhi and Craig Timberg about the meetings:

“Jeffrey P. Bezos had a simple bit of advice for the staff of the newspaper he’ll soon own: Put readers, not advertisers, first. Don’t write to impress each other. And above all, ‘Don’t be boring.’”

But what’s discouraging is just that: Almost everything that those listening to Bezos found worth repeating was so thoroughly familiar that it ought to have been unremarkable.

For instance, every bit of that Post paragraph above was pretty much from News Writing 101. Many reporters hate the idea that advertising is even IN the newspaper, so you hardly have to tell them not to put advertisers first, but getting a writer to think of his story from the perspective of a reader can take some work. And “Don’t be boring”? Get serious. That falls under the category of advice that my wife calls “Don’t shave the cat,” which means it’s advice you really shouldn’t need to hear in order to do the sensible thing. No editor ever chewed out a reporter for failing to load a story full of six-syllable words, math equations and technical explanations.

“What has been happening over the last several years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos said of seemingly never-ending cuts to news staff. “If every year we cut the newsroom a little more and a little more and a little more, we know where that ends.”

I have yet to hear anyone say otherwise, so while it’s nice to know that Bezos doesn’t think you can cut your way to prosperity, that thought by itself doesn’t mean he can get the revenue moving back in the right direction.

What the news industry hopes to see from Bezos eventually is a way for the business to thrive in the world of free and instant sharing on the Internet. The closest he got to that was this:

“Should it be as easy to buy the Washington Post as it is to buy diapers on Amazon? I think it should.”

Can’t argue with that. Many of the business practices at a great many newspapers are firmly rooted in the pre-Internet 20th century. But again, that’s hardly a novel realization. People have been talking about this in the industry for years, yet, just like the weather, no one does anything about it.

Then we get to a couple of things the Post reported Bezos saying that are just depressing to journalists.

“You have to figure out: How can we make the new thing? Because you have to acknowledge that the physical print business is in structural decline,” he said. “You can’t pretend that that’s not the case. You have to accept it and move forward. . . . The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was …”

If that’s the death knell, then we’re dead, baby, because journalists have been glorifying the past for decades – particularly at Pulitzer-winning metropolitan papers such as the Post.

“All businesses need to be forever young. . . . If your customer base ages with you as a company, you’re Woolworth’s.”

All I have to say about that is, welcome to Woolworth’s.

Actually, I’d rather end on a positive note, or as positive as any of Bezos’ comments struck me, which was this on what Bezos said his purchase of the Post shows about his outlook:

“If I thought it was hopeless I’d feel BAD for you guys. But I wouldn’t want to join you.”

So he’s an optimist. Which might just be the surest evidence possible that at heart he isn’t a journalist.

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Mike Fourcher, a publisher of hyperlocal news sites in Chicago, has written up the things he learned from the experience. It’s instructive, and I particularly recommend that other journalists read it so they better appreciate the economic forces confronting the industry. As Mike notes as his 18th thing he learned, big publications and small publications have the same problems.

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Since for most of the past 12 years, a large part of my job has been trying to help journalists – especially in small newsrooms – make sense of the changes and new tools sweeping the industry, I’m going to take a crack at interpreting the imposing study Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

So, do you need to read it? If you work in either the content (news) or business end of a journalism organization, you should read it. But realistically, it’s huge, so there’s a chance either you’ll start and won’t get far, then later think of it but won’t go get your computer or tablet to do it, and if you print it out it will go into your stack of magazines and you won’t touch it until spring, when you’ll put it in the recycling bin. So let’s prioritize: Pressed for time, what do you need to read? The whole thing is a tough slog for one sitting, both for its length and its academic style, and there are pretty good summaries out there, notably from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm.

Start with those summaries and then seek out the parts that in the summaries sound most interesting. My take:

The Introduction: If you are one of the people who think the industry’s whole problem is putting information online without charging for it, you seriously need to read the introduction because you have an incomplete understanding of the business end, its history and what’s happening to it.

Part 1: If you are unsure what exactly is changing about the role of a journalist, this helps fill in the blanks, though to me it seems overly focused on what I would call large newsrooms (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and New Orleans, for instance), not the size of newsrooms that predominate across the country. However, to the extent that these larger newsrooms have resources and an ability to experiment that small newsrooms do not, it is important to be aware of what they should or may be trying to do because changing technology may make it easier for you later.

Part 2: If you have a big-picture job – an executive, an academic, a journalism think-tanker, writer for CJR, AJR, Nieman Lab, etc. – this section gets into some useful philosophical space about institutional change. It’s also helpful if you are trying unsuccessfully to manage up in a company that is resisting change; you’ll understand better why you can’t get the urgency of your message conveyed higher up. It is not as much immediate help to the typical ground-level journalist except for further context about the changing face of the industry.

Part 3: This attempts to use some recent examples to flesh out the larger picture of how the emerging models of journalism may work. It builds on part 1, so if you still aren’t sure what the changes there mean for you, read this part.

Conclusion: This takes up where the introduction left off, going from how things have already changed to trying to extrapolate into the future. If you found the introduction useful, read this.

To me, the essential message for journalists can be summed up with these passages:

Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines.

… Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?

… For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events – natural disasters, mass murders – the transition is complete.

In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.

… The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results.

… People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill.

In September of last year, I saw what I think is a perfect example of what the above describes, and it came from a small newsroom, the News & Messenger and insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va. After severe flooding in the region, people found themselves without a clearinghouse for information and discussion — but they gravitated to the newspaper’s Facebook page and were filling it with just such information. So, seeing that, online editor Kari Pugh created a flood information clearinghouse page on Facebook (it’s still there). In just a few hours it had garnered about 250 “likes,” and the community discussion on it became mostly self-sustaining.

Though the newspaper’s circulation is something around 10,000, on Facebook it has more than 26,000 likes. And its users have remained an active community. Key to the online community’s activity has been the involvement of the journalists. You can see it in the back-and-forth between them and people in the community.

How the news staff reacted to the flooding and the community’s desire to share information is something at least close to, though less sophisticated than, what Jeff Jarvis said this week he wishes he saw in the New York area in the wake of Sandy. It’s not a complex skillset, it just takes a shift in the way you see what the role of journalists is in this world of mobile devices that let every person report on what’s happening right then and there.

The Tow Center report is massive, and the future it paints may feel at times overwhelming. But you don’t have to build that future in one day, just as video games didn’t get from Pong to “World of Warcraft” overnight. (BTW, Happy 40th birthday, Pong.) What’s one step you can take today? Engaging your “readers” is an easy one, and, as it did with the News & Messenger, it may point you to the next step.

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Through my insomnia, my mind kept rolling back to this quote from the Washington Post item about the closing of the News & Messenger in Manassas, Va.:

“They put a lot of emphasis on their digital products,” Kroeger said, “so their print circulation fell even further.”

The News & Messenger in many ways is a microcosm of the issues facing the industry, and the above quote is itself a prime example of one side in the debate about what the response should be. Do active efforts to build audience online erode circulation? Even if they do, if print advertising keeps dropping then are online efforts needed to build an audience that will give you a bridge to a future where most people will get their news online? I know I don’t have the answer.

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One thing in particular to note from the news earlier today that Warren Buffett’s World Media Enterprises is closing one of its newspapers:

“Terry Kroeger, chairman of World Media, said the newspaper is in direct competition with many other publications and, being part of a large metropolitan area, had a tough time finding the sense of community that a community newspaper needs to prosper. He said the paper had been losing money for years.”

That’s not entirely true. If you check on Facebook for the page of insidenova.com, the website of the News & Messenger, which is the Virginia paper Buffett’s company is closing, you’ll see it has more than 24,000 likes, and if you dig down you’ll find that the Facebook community that had formed around insidenova.com is an active one. There is a community there. The problem is that WME, like other print publishers, doesn’t know how to make a profit from that. That’s the entire crux of the crisis in print publications. There is not necessarily the lack of an audience for news about any particular community, there is just (so far) a lack of ways to make enough money from those folks to keep the lights on.

UPDATE: Don’t take my word for it. From the Washington Post:

“This is horrendous news for everyone in Prince William County and those who care about Prince William news. The News & Messenger and InsideNoVA are the definitive source of news in Prince William.”

And note this quote: “They put a lot of emphasis on their digital products,” Kroeger said, “so their print circulation fell even further.”

So [Edited to clarify] If that view is correct throughout the industry, then the question is whether the closing of the News & Messenger is an aberration or a sign of things to come.

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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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It’s not at all surprising that Phoenix TV station KPHO is running an ad poking plans by Gannett properties The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV to charge for online news (I would embed it here, but embedding has been blocked on that one). What’s surprising is no other TV station in a competitive market has run such an ad (as far as I know). The ad claims that KPHO’s website has “even more” information than the Gannett site, azcentral.com, which sounds patently ridiculous on its face — but how many people who aren’t devoted daily newspaper readers know that? I know some devoted newspaper folks whose first instinct when local news breaks is to go to the leading TV station’s website, not the newspaper’s site. This ad just takes aim at that type of impulse and seeks to build on it. It is the leading argument in my mind for why no news site should be 100 percent behind any sort of paywall. If you have competition that’s free, you need to offer at least breaking news, something to keep them coming to you for free so that you can then attempt to lure them to pay for your fuller coverage and extras.

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