Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

In a world of dwindling newsroom resources, one of the harder questions is how much of your time and attention to place online. The view I tend to align with is that the future audience is going to be all-digital, and likely mostly mobile, so we need to make sure we are moving ourselves.

Then comes this new study that shows that when it comes to news consumption, a lot of what you put online may as well be wasted effort in comparison to how much use the print product gets: 92 percent of the consumption of news is on legacy platforms, only 8 percent on digital.

The temptation is to say that everyone should then devote 92 percent of their time and energy to the legacy platform. I know that’s too simplistic.

What if digital news consumption is relatively low because we just aren’t that good yet at grabbing digital users?

Or maybe the real message is to spend your online energies tailoring what you do present online to the on-the-run way that people use that medium, which in turn may mean there are things you are doing online now that you don’t really need to do, given how little use it is getting.

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Nieman Media Lab’s article about media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” struck me because ever since my move less than three months ago to become editor of a small newspaper in northwest North Carolina, I almost never see anything on Tweetdeck. As a result, I feel extremely cut off from the up-to-date flow of new information on news industry developments from sources I have followed, in some cases, almost as long as Twitter has existed.

At the same time, my current job feels almost entirely linear, and I can’t say my previous job with Media General in Richmond, Va., did. Day to day, hour to hour, I am too busy to monitor the river of tweets. I literally cannot carve out the time. So Rushkoff’s description of what he means by “present shock” resonates — I have spent hours doing nothing but watching what comes in, following it, evaluating it and deciding what was worth following further and spreading, devoting some small amount of time to thinking farther ahead about the longer-term implications — it was, after all, part of my job to think ahead, but connecting “right now” to the next few hours was not so much part of it.

Of course I think my situation illustrates part of the stratification of the industry: Editors at papers with small staffs are too occupied with the immediate needs of today’s paper and the next few days’ papers to follow the commentary on what is likely coming down the line.

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Continuing on the topic of changing what local news reporters do (I provided some links in this post a couple weeks ago), John Robinson proposes a kind of New Year’s resolution for editors:

If editors do one thing for their newspaper readers in 2013 — yes, there are a slew of things needing to be done for their digital audience in 2013 — it should be to examine how they are covering the local news. Is it what people need to understand their community? Are we covering this because it’s vital information or because we need to fill a hole in the paper? Will this story make reading the paper an indispensable act? Because if it doesn’t — and with the circulation losses papers have suffered over the past 10 years, there is evidence it doesn’t — it’s time for a change.

Meanwhile, Steve Buttry adds to his previous posts on this topic with more specific thoughts on how a newsroom might change some or all of its beats.

I fear that some people will stop reading at the point where Steve suggests a pets beat and will miss his larger point: Something has to change, and you have to start thinking about it, and what you change may be less important than having a thorough discussion about the possibilities and doing something about it.

John notes as evidence of the need for change some results of a September 2011 Pew survey: “For instance, when asked, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’ a large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information.”

John also cites his experience in the past year reading the front pages of a dozen Sunday papers around North Carolina and seeing too much rote, uninteresting coverage. I can go further: For the past six weeks, I haven’t read any newspapers at all, nor have I watched local TV news, and I firmly fall into the camp saying that as far as I can tell the death of my local newspaper would have only a minor impact on my ability to get local information. (I do miss certain columnists and the routine of the morning paper, but if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.)

But this is where the hope for fixing local news hits a Catch-22. John quotes Philip Meyer from a 2008 online discussion about local news:

“Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.”

I won’t rehash all the arguments I made on this point three months ago, but I will summarize:

The success of any attempt to change or “fix” local news is ultimately dependent on publishers and the executives who supervise them agreeing with the need to restructure the newsroom pay scale and to end, where they exist, any mandates that the front page absolutely has to be all-local. Yes, I mean better pay, but I also mean fewer people in the newsroom because the revenue isn’t there to raise pay and keep the staff the same size, which is the reason publishers who want all-local front pages have to give that up in the name of getting better reporting. That also means more pressure on editors to ensure their staff follows through – more-engaged editors, more-engaged reporters.

Lord knows newsrooms have many creative, imaginative people who consider the job a calling and work cheap. But it has fewer every day – beyond layoffs, many are no longer willing to work low-paying jobs that have become content farms of rote coverage. Counting on an endless supply of new ones who are willing is likely to be as healthy for your business model as counting on an endless supply of gasoline under $4 a gallon.

1/2/13 UPDATE: A good follow-up today by John Robinson on the need for editors to confront the reality of permanently smaller staffs and how to figure out what people really want the newsroom to do.

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Sometimes it’s easy to feel down about journalism. It’s a little too easy. Yes, the collapse of advertising and the rapid pace of technological change are problems, but there is a lot in journalism still worth celebrating. Among them:

Technology. Yes, the industry is having trouble keeping up with what new technology is doing to the business model for news, but look at all that technology is making possible. At one extreme is the kind of rich storytelling experience exemplified recently by the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” (FYI, good info on that package from The Atlantic Wire). Even in small newsrooms with nowhere near that level of technological ability, new tools are enabling new forms of storytelling.

At the very basic level, technology allows reporters to be untethered from their desks yet still be able to reach sources at any time and also file stories and photos from almost anywhere, and it opens the possibility for new, deeper, stronger ties between news organizations and their communities. Technology is making access to records faster and easier, and giving us databases where once there only were farflung file cabinets of paper, if the information existed at all. It is easing and speeding communication of all kinds. All of this is good news if you believe an informed public is inherently a good thing.

Bosses worth working for. I have been lucky because I can count on one hand, and still hold a cup of coffee, the bosses I’ve had for whom I would not happily work again. One of my editors I actually did work for twice. There are editors out there who make their staffs feel good about their work, and some even make the workplace fun. Not only that, there are good publishers. True, I’ve met my share of underhanded, unimaginative or timid publishers, but I’ve met many more who believe that good journalism is good business in the long term. Just in the past month I met two who specifically said they want their news staffs to feel free to butt heads and do stories that might upset local officials. A good boss makes a world of difference, and there are a good number of them out there.

Staffers worth supervising. Journalists fancy themselves as crusty and cynical, but it’s hard to find a more optimistic group. Look at how they have watched their newsrooms dwindle, but see how many of them remain hopeful about the future of the business. In all my travels visiting newsrooms, spending time with a news staff has always left me feeling energized. Journalists just want to do a good job, and their job, when done well, helps the public.

Strivers and innovators. Although the traditional business model faces many problems, there are many people and organizations constantly trying new things. Just visiting the Nieman Journalism Lab site every now and then will give you some hope. If you’re like me, you can feel frustrated at either the pace of these efforts or the slow adoption of some innovations, but at least there are people trying new things. With enough people trying in enough places, good things have to result.

Thinking about things such as these make me feel better — as light as a feather, as merry as a school-boy, maybe even as giddy as a drunken man, Dickens might say. I should try to dwell on them more often.

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I wrote a couple weeks ago that my response to a question about how to fit in all the new things journalists are told to do now was that if you want to start something, you have to stop something. I probably should have fleshed that out. I didn’t, but Steve Buttry has. Sample, on government meetings:

Maybe for your community, the answer is to send a reporter to the meetings to livetweet (live coverage gets more readership than stories), but to have the reporter turn his attention after the meeting to enterprise reporting on topics covered in the meeting, rather than undertaking the redundant task of writing a story about the meeting he just livetweeted.

If your local government agencies livestream their meetings, maybe you don’t need a reporter present. You embed the livestream on your site for meeting coverage and spend your reporter’s time on enterprise, unless a meeting promises to be unusually newsworthy.

In fact, that was essentially the approach I took as a reporter in a far-flung bureau covering meetings in a town where there was a local paper. Anything that happened during the meeting that sounded interesting, I knew the local paper would report the next day, so instead I would do my own reporting on the subject and flesh it out over the next day or two, such as a case where people living near a quarry complained of the damage that blasting at the quarry was causing to their well water and homes. I got a better story, plus a photo. Nowadays I might be able to get a slideshow and/or video out of it too.

Steve has other suggestions, including, “We need to work out partnerships with community journalists (and non-journalists)” — another word for those is “bloggers” — “who are doing jobs we’ve been doing and stop doing what they are doing, so we can focus our resources on unique ways we can serve the community.” The Seattle Times has such a network going (and discussed it at a session I attended at ONA12), so it’s not just a vague idea, it’s a model you can study and emulate, and tweak to fit your community.

Steve also links to several previous posts he had that address the idea of what needs to change. It’s the only topic that’s certain to remain on your radar.

12/21/12 UPDATE: From one of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s columns making predictions for 2013 that seems relevant to part of this discussion: Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups …

12/30/12 UPDATE: More on this topic John Robinson and Steve Buttry.

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John Robinson, former editor of the News and Record in Greensboro, N.C., writes in part 2 of his look back on his former job, from the perspective he has gained a year out of the job (part 1 here), the reasons why he thinks he didn’t do more of the things that, in hindsight, seem so obviously needed. I encourage everyone to read it, not just editors. He posted it a day after I was asked, by everyone from a publisher to his reporters, how to fit new things into all the things they already do. The answer stems from everything John wrote about. And I agree with him completely that maybe you need to step out of the newsroom to see where events tend to sweep a news staff along.

The short answer I gave to the question was that if you want to start doing something, you have to stop doing something. John didn’t put it quite that way, but his explanations about “Space must be filled” and the inertia of the beat structure — together, the feeling of urgency to fill the paper (presumably, the urgency stems from feeling the need for LOCAL bylines) plus the easy availability of incremental news from the beat structure — are at the heart of what I meant. News staffs are smaller than ever. They are being asked to do a wider variety of tasks than ever. You can’t have it all, and they can’t do it all. Choose your battles.

And my last advice asks the most of the editors at the top. Follow John’s suggestion:

Had I organized monthly meetings with the public to hear how we could serve them better, it would have improved our journalism, and I would have been a better steward of their newspaper.

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Another week, another ruckus over paywalls. That link will take you to Steve Buttry’s angle on the issue, but he links to the rest. Suffice to say I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone to base an argument in favor or against anything, let alone declare victory, based on trends that started in just the past few years.

This ruckus erupted just ahead of news that Rupert Murdoch will pull the plug on his iPad-only, subscription-only news product, The Daily.

That by itself is evidence enough not to be too eager to declare victory. In this case, it was not the launch of The Daily that I refer to; many raised questions about the wisdom of launching a new product and immediately making it unavailable to the potential audience – that it would be one thing to take a well established, highly regarded newspaper entirely behind a hard paywall, and it’s another thing entirely to launch something new behind one.

What I recall also happening at the time, though, is swooning over the iPad’s implications for print publications moving to digital formats. I remember multiple company meetings where editors asked those responsible for digital initiatives when their newspaper would get its own iPad app. Everyone needed an app, so it seemed. An app! An app! My kingdom for an app.

While I loved the look of things I saw on the iPad, the idea of apps never struck me as a good one. They are not cheap or easy to build, and if you recall, your phone is not only old but totally obsolete in less than two years, so how long, I wondered, would the technology in an app be likely to last before it needed to be redesigned for the next generation (two years from now) of mobile products?

Part of The Daily’s problem, then, might be overeagerness to buy into the Apple iHype. But in a column about The Daily at GigaOm, Jordan Kurzweil lays out what he sees as the ways the The Daily went wrong and that he thinks still could be fixed. And I was struck while reading it that a great deal of what he said sounded like it applies to any newspaper trying to adjust to the digital world:

Be more than daily. Simply put, people now expect constant news updates. It doesn’t matter whether you think that’s good business; if you don’t provide it, the customers will go elsewhere.

Use technology to be bigger. I think the particulars of Kurzweil’s argument for The Daily here are different than I would put them for most newsrooms (most newsrooms having fairly limited technological capabilities), but a big part in either case is curation – or, as Jeff Jarvis says, do what you do best and link to the rest. In any community, it’s a rare news organization that is trying in any serious way to curate local blogs, competing news outlets, Twitter and whatever else is out there. One person doing that using common online tools could re-establish the newsroom as the hub of community conversation and news discovery.

Be available. I used to hear this worded differently: Go where your customers are. Nowadays, that is online, and rapidly it is becoming mobile. If you are 100 percent walled off from non-subscribers – meaning not only do you require payment for reading your stories, but you do not run any kind of free, web-friendly site to offer even a taste of your work to a casual passerby – it is not likely you will gain many new customers. Why are there ever stands in the grocery store offering free samples of a particular product? Same idea.

Fix the user experience. Most journalists I know give this practically no thought at all. Spend a day using nothing but your phone to keep up with the news, then think whether, if you had similar frustration when you went to a local restaurant, you would ever go back. Unfortunately, the technicalities of the user experience are largely outside your control, but you can think about the elements you are delivering to that experience, and if you are thinking about it, then when the opportunity comes to weigh in on the technology, you will have a base of knowledge from which to speak.

Be frugal. Most newsrooms I’m familiar with are way past frugal, so I have to reframe this. The problem The Daily had on this count was ignoring the frequent saying in business, “Fail fast, fail cheap.” But the mindset that led to this failure is well ingrained in newsrooms. Murdoch decided the future of the newspaper was in a highly formatted online product, so he threw a massive amount of money at it and tried to build Rome in a day. Didn’t work. I have seen over and over again that when an idea for something online is presented in a newspaper newsroom, the managers don’t want to do it unless they can make it pretty close to perfect; when moving to a new CMS, they will fuss over minute details and delay the launch; even redesigning the print product, they will agonize or argue over fonts. I would translate “be frugal” here as “be good enough,” using the phrase that in the mid-2000s the Newspaper Next project beat editors over the head with. I don’t think it took. (In 2010, Steve wrote a good update on the topic.)

I don’t know whether any of the above steps would have saved The Daily. But I have trouble finding a downside in the basic ideas.

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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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My first impulse was to dismiss David Brauchli’s argument in favor of paywalls as a combination of crap and a sales pitch, if that’s not redundant.

But he ends with a solid idea: that perhaps there is premium content people are willing to pay for. I agree, though I’m not sure the audience will be enough to support the traditional newspaper model, but we’ll see. Until proven wrong, I welcome the chance to experiment and find out.

Unfortunately, Brauchli spends the first part of his argument beating the dead horse that any decent journalist should not spread ideas that any content should be free. The worst part of his argument:

“Most people understand that the content found in newspapers costs money to produce. The cost of producing that content is not diminished when the content is distributed online.”

That something costs money to produce is the worst possible foundation on which to assign a value to that thing. I could employ 100 really awful mechanics to build as many car-like conveyances as they possibly could produce, but whether any of those things would be worth money is not a good proposition. The average newspaper probably is in a better position, value-wise, but that doesn’t mean that everything the staff spends time to produce is worth money, or that everything that is worth money to a portion of the readership also is worth something to the rest of the readership. High school sports is one area where newspapers in recent years have decided they should devote a LOT of resources, on the entirely reasonable basis that no one else covers it. I don’t give a rat’s ass about high school sports; why should I pay one thin dime for that coverage? But I don’t have that option when I pick up the Saturday paper after Friday-night football.

As a recently laid-off journalist, I have had to make the value judgment, and I chose not to continue the daily newspaper. After almost two weeks, I really can’t say I’ve missed much. It reinforces the point made to me in 2001 when I first moved out of a daily newsroom: Once you are not directly connected to the daily operation of a newsroom, your perspective changes, and you gradually realize that what the newsroom staff is doing every day may not be as valuable as you thought. Unfortunately, that message is hard to push. I and no one I know really tried hard to push it; at most, major change was given the status of a distance goal, and we tried to push the idea of working toward a better ideal, not making huge changes in the short term.

But the biggest business problem with the newspaper model — one that would not be fixed with any changes on the content side — is it remains a one-bundle-for-all model. It’s a mass-circulation model because that’s what the big advertisers — the people who REALLY pay for the paper — historically have wanted. The content has innovated — it is more mobile than ever and better able than ever to be atomized and customized — but the business end remains a bundle. I doubt you’ll see much innovation on the business side — until the traditional side’s dollars slide far enough that the digital dimes look much more attractive than they do now.

11/27/12 UPDATE: Similar thoughts from Alan Mutter:

By their inaction, publishers have been shut out of nearly half the digital market.

Now, the same thing appears to be happening again. While the IAB reports that mobile advertising has doubled in each of the last three years, most newspapers have only rudimentary capabilities in this rapidly developing area. Publishers also are weak contenders in video, the next-biggest area of growth after mobile.

The challenges will keep coming. Not the least of them will be the innovative, target-marketing capabilities bound to be developed by Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other social media to capitalize on their expanding audiences. And who knows what lies beyond?

While publishers are preoccupied with managing the epic decline in print, they are losing sight of the future.

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Not a journalist, believe it or not
I’m constantly amazed at the serendipity of the information I run across, two or three or four things in a day or two that seem related to a particular line of thinking I had. Here, thanks to Matthew Ingram of GigaOm, is a natural Part Two to my previous post.

Given my argument there, that advertising in newspapers is continuing a downward slide that paywalls, or anything else tried so far, will not stop, what then should journalists do? We’re in the content business, not the revenue business, so our ability to affect the bottom line is limited. But we can affect how our readers (aka, customers) think of our business, as a post at the confused of calcutta blog instructs. In fact, in a future ever more reliant on subscription revenue, which is dictated by declining advertising revenue, it is not optional. We MUST treat readers more as customers, engage them individually, draw them into conversation. If we see our role purely as SENDING OUT information, we doom ourselves.

From the blog:

“Ask yourself ‘Will the customer get a better product or service as a result of what I’m doing?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer return and trade with me again?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer recommend me to others?’ And again and again, ask yourself:

“Will this help build trust between the customer and the company?”

Journalists often don’t like thinking in terms of “customers.” It feels shady. Those of us who came to the work because we thought of ourselves first and foremost as writers think of our work as a product of our soul, so thinking of it as business is like we’re selling our bodies. That’s a conceit, and a luxury we can’t afford. If you want to be a starving artist, there is no end to the ways you can avoid helping any business make money.

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