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Posts Tagged ‘hyperlocal’

I spent most of the 12 years before coming to Lenoir trying to translate the national discussions about new media and news transformation for small newsrooms. Everyone talks in terms of big newsrooms and metro papers. But in terms of the national media scene, those are a minority of news organizations. The things that are of top importance in their newsrooms are luxurious daydreams for most newsrooms in the country.

In that sense, I was amply prepared for my current job. Yet I remain frustrated that smaller newsrooms, even those much larger than mine, seem to be less than an afterthought in journalism-discussion circles.

Take, as just one example, the Denver Post memo about the paper’s newsroom reorganization, much publicized and much discussed. “As part of the public meetings starting later in July, think about what The Post should cover, how should we be organized, what beats would you start and which would you eliminate,” it says.

It is the latest of many news conversations focused on rethinking what newspapers do cover versus what we should.

Good. I agree. Let’s rethink it.

I have four reporters in my newsroom, with these beats: sports (all), justice (cops and courts, countywide), city-county (Lenoir city government plus county government), and education plus the other five and a half (one is on the county line) small towns throughout the county.

I have no idea how I might reconstruct things to get better coverage. Literally everyone is a generalist. Half of all stories, at least, are what the city folk would call general assignment.

Do I stop having people cover the small towns in the county? That one reporter would like having Monday and Tuesday nights back, but the town leaders would view it as abandoning coverage, which would feed the negative narrative in the towns about our coverage. They are small towns. The average citizen in Charlotte may not give much weight to what his or her city council member thinks of the Observer’s coverage, but in Gamewell the elected officials are authorities, to many, and if they go around saying the newspaper doesn’t care, that carries significant weight.

Or maybe there should be no beats based on government structure at all. Except that my reporting staff is entirely under the age of 25 and from places other than here. Where would they begin? Beats, lets remember, are structure and help a new reporter figure out where to begin.

Or perhaps everyone would agree with me, that my newsroom is smaller than anyone would contemplate trying to reorganize beat structures.

Yes, well, move on, then, but it won’t mean I am less affected by the restructuring of media habits, advertising and news consumption patterns than you are.

The national discussion in journalism is divorced from the reality that the majority of papers face. Yet I know it is what the people on my staff will face if and when they decide to seek a job at a larger newsroom. And I know, from experience, that whatever larger newsrooms confront now will manifest themselves eventually in smaller newsrooms. Except it will be different, and no one will talk much about it then.

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If innovation is all about learning how to fail, the news business is innovating its butt off.

This morning brought the news that Digital First Media, which has been making the industry’s biggest, hardest, loudest pitches for transformation away from print-centered operations, is going to close its biggest innovation, Project Thunderdome, and may begin selling newspapers.

A number of the names attached to DFM’s digital push I first became aware of because of their work elsewhere, especially Jim Brady, Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins. Many of the things they have advocated have felt, on a gut level, like the right things to do to get to the future of the news business. They have demonstrated ways to build engagement online and build news audience online even as the decades-long decline in newspaper circulation, which long predated the Internet, continues and TV audiences erode.

The problem, as ever, is that while most people seem to agree that the future of news is digital and mobile, the “business” part of it doesn’t seem able to innovate or migrate its way as quickly as the news part can.

Now if DFM has faltered, as the innovative hyperlocal site TBD did before it, will others pull back?

Publishers have always been wary of venturing quickly into the digital realm without proof they can generate revenue there equal to what they lose by dropping print, so doesn’t this provide just one more excuse to slow down?

And because the Orange County Register’s efforts to boost business by reinvesting in the print product also appear to be going nowhere, the new mantra in news might just become, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

But when you know the beach is eroding under your feet, just standing there isn’t much of an option. I think we all have to keep looking at the kinds of things TBD, DFM and others have been trying, and pick the ones that make sense in our own newsrooms with the staff we have. Pick up the flag and keep marching forward.

UPDATE: Steve Buttry makes the argument that you can’t call Thunderdome a failure (or TBD either) because it was never given enough time to succeed. I think he’s correct, but I don’t think the folks who can put money into these kinds of things will examine the merits of his argument closely. I’m afraid the narrative that will be constructed from the outside will say that what was tried at Thunderdome, and TBD, clearly failed or the plug wouldn’t have been pulled.

On another topic, I also just read the post from Digital First CEO John Paton explaining today’s moves. It says, in part:

“In the past two years we have learned a tremendous amount from Project Thunderdome much like others that have come before it like our Ben Franklin Project.

“We have explored, experimented but more importantly we have learned and have a much higher level of digital skills than we did before. And, best of all, a higher level of confidence in our digital abilities across our entire Company.

“Our skills in data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments are all the better for Project Thunderdome.

“But what once were fairly isolated skills located in one place are now skills shared by many in our Company. Where once initiatives, like Project Unbolt were led centrally, we now have divisions taking their own Digital First initiatives.”

In other words, Thunderdome was so successful that the company no longer needs it.

Project Unbolt, by the way, was announced Jan. 29. I guess that would make it the most successful digital initiative ever because it made itself obsolete in barely more than two months.

Maybe it’s not Orwellian of Paton to put it that way, but on a much smaller scale I have seen what happens when “successful” initiatives driven by corporate HQ suddenly end. Often, so does the success; what you thought was “buy in” was editors telling staff, “Just do it and get corporate off my butt, OK?” If that was the case at any DFM properties, it should be clear before long — probably in much less time than Thunderdome had to build these new skills and habits across DFM.

4/3/14 UPDATE: Good business perspective from Alan Mutter:

“In other words, the objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models, whatever they eventually may turn out to be.

It would be a mistake to view the failure at Digital First as a failure of digital publishing or a reason to stop trying to get it right.”

4/4/14 UPDATE: Great contribution of context by Mandy Jenkins, which among other things further points out the corporate babble of Paton’s statement about Thunderdome having been so successful. Among other things:

“Thunderdome never even got the chance to carry out even the beginnings of our goals. Many of our long-planned channels just started launching. We had a number of new revenue-generating products on the horizon. We had just started building our in-house product team.”

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Ziggy
Journalism school and 26 years working as a reporter and editor have prepared me for almost anything likely to come through the newsroom, but it still galls me that people are more likely to cancel their subscriptions over the disappearance of a pantsless cartoon character than anything I have actual control over.

And it illustrates a difficulty in answering the question of what the audience is for local news.

By “audience,” I mean the portion of the public who cares enough about local news that they would be willing to pay to support the reporting of it. The audience is not the paying base of print newspaper subscribers – certainly not the larger base of 15 years ago, and not even the shrunken one we have now. It is a subset of that – perhaps a small one.

For decades, newspapers added on sections and specific features so that no matter what your interest, there probably was something in that package of disparate material that would interest you. They did this not because there was any inherent relationship in the material or it seemed logical to package it but because it was the surest way to build the readership. Perversely, adding readership could even cost the newspapers more than what they charged for a home subscription, but the bigger the readership, the higher the rates that could be charged to advertisers, which is where the big money was anyway.

And that’s exactly why the industry’s reaction to declining advertising has fueled circulation declines.

Drastic declines in advertising revenue over the past decade led to a focus on newspapers’ “core mission,” which obviously is local news. That’s what we do that you can’t find anywhere else.

That meant cutting some features that newspapers paid to get, but it also meant cutting some staff – movie reviewers, NASCAR reporters, reporters covering college sports in a distant town, food writers, science writers – especially if what they covered was also provided by the wire services the newspapers already paid for.

But that increasingly left a product that is not exactly what we originally sold our readers, and I see that all the time in my job as editor of a small local newspaper.

I don’t get that many complaints about local news.

But I get a lot of complaints from sports fans that we don’t have enough college and pro sports results in the paper. We need more agate and box scores.

I get quite a few complaints that our main news section is actually too local, with not enough national and international news in it.

I get heated complaints when the person in charge of placing the Cryptoquote puzzle in the paper screws up and leaves it out or runs the same puzzle two days in a row.

But by far the greatest number of complaints during my first year in Lenoir came as a result of two business decisions: to drop our Saturday edition, and to change our comics lineup. And almost none of the complaints had to do with missing a day of news.

The Saturday edition was dropped because it had easily the lowest single-copy sales of the week and was the edition with the least advertising – virtually no advertising, in fact. The complaints: delayed sports results (Friday night results run Sunday), a day without a chuckle from the comics, and the possibility that an obituary might be pushed to Sunday when services were Saturday.

But predictably, the worst reaction was to the comics, which changed as part of a renegotiation with syndicates and a level of standardization to help the staff in our pagination and editing hub more easily handle all of the comics pages they are responsible for.

One unintended result of the change was that the size of the crossword shrank, which prompted several people to tell me that the “only reason” they subscribed was for the crossword, which now was too small to be used. After a week, we were able to move the puzzle and fix that.

But the dropped comics – which included “Ziggy,” “Peanuts,” “The Lockhorns,” “Family Circus” and “Belvedere” – have cost us quite a few subscribers. You might note that all of the dropped ones are quite old, and some (“Peanuts,” “For Better or Worse” and “Belvedere,” for instance) have been in reruns for years. Others are on their second or third generation of artists. But people hate change. Tell a fan of “Belvedere” that no new comic had been drawn since 1995 and the response is that the fan doesn’t remember that far back, so all of them seemed new to him.
“The paper is mainly full of bad news, and Ziggy always made me smile,” one reader complained.

And there’s that age-old complaint: All the news is bad. You never print any good news.

Neither is true, but a great many people just don’t want to be bummed out. Those are the people who bought the newspaper because of all of the things besides local news that came in the package. They tossed aside all the stuff they didn’t want and turned to their 50-year-old comic strip or their word puzzle, or their sports.

But the stuff they didn’t want is what I think any reasonable person would say is the “core mission” of the local newspaper. Everything else they can find somewhere else – and have been finding it, as their local newspaper has dropped feature after feature.

Perhaps that’s why the Orange County Register’s circulation has remained flat even as new owner Aaron Kushner has brought back a hefty number of features – while also beefing up the staff that pursues the “core mission” of local news.

I have had a number of longtime readers call or mail in to tell me how much they like the newspaper since I got here, that it feels like a “real” newspaper or that the local stories are more interesting. The publisher tells me that neither here nor anywhere else she has worked has she seen so many compliments for the news.

So I know local news has an audience. But I don’t think anyone has a clue how big or small that audience might be, and circulations continue to drop.

2/5/14 UPDATE: A similar, or at least related, argument but in a much more definitive (or depressing) way by Internet pioneer and investor Marc Andreessen. Or just read this quote for the gist of the thing: “I think main problem with local news is most people don’t care.”

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News-Topic  -2004 logo
If you had told me I’d be back editing the Lenoir News-Topic 25 years after I left, I would have laughed. It’s not the direction I saw my career going. But Warren Buffett intervened, and in the process of saving modern journalism (if that didn’t sound sarcastic in your head, you have to read it over again) he put me and 104 other people out of jobs. Long story short, here I am, and here, in the Jan. 27 News-Topic, I make my version of Charles Foster Kane’s “declaration of principles.” If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s a summary:

I want to get the website into the 21st century, and with any luck not too long after that it might actually catch up to the current date.

I want to get the staff engaged online with the audience. In a small town, that may be a little bit redundant, but the early returns on our very embryonic start look good.

But mostly, with two new hires — one made, one in process — I’m putting good writing front and center in my reclamation project. I’ve long maintained and made the argument that in the long run, as more and more data and nuggets of information can be found for free online, good writing and creativity can make a site stand out and get readers to keep coming back. Now, in a small way, I have a chance to try it myself.

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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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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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