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December 08 2011

16:00

Tom Stites: Layoffs and cutbacks lead to a new world of news deserts

Editor’s note: Tom Stites had a long career in newspapers, editing Pulitzer-winning projects and working at top newspapers like The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In recent years, he’s shifted his emphasis to trying to figure out a new business model to support journalism through the Banyan Project. This week, Tom outlines his beliefs on where web journalism stands today and one model he thinks might work; here’s part one.

Here’s a challenge: Name a straightforward two-word phrase related to journalism that you can enter in Google and get only one result.

Stumped? Try “news desert” — one, and only one, direct hit.1

Now check Wikipedia. “News desert” comes up entirely empty — but “food desert” gets 3,400 words. Any why not? Hunger is a crucial issue, and “food desert” provides a vivid frame that elicits a mental movie of hungry people crawling over arid dunes in search of an oasis for sustenance.

Frames matter. They determine how an issue is understood, driving this understanding into the language and thus into people’s thinking about what actions to take. One proof of the power of “food desert” as a frame is that a Google search yields thousands of direct hits — including links to serious actions people have taken, including the Agriculture Department’s food desert locator and to Food Desert Awareness Month.

But isn’t it also a crucial issue that a huge part of the American people, the less-than-affluent majority, is civically malnourished due to the sad state of U.S. journalism — and that the nation’s broad electorate is thus all but certainly ill informed? It has long troubled me, and many others, that an issue so central to democracy has such a peripheral role in the discourse about journalism’s future, which tends to focus more on crowdsourcing, Twitter and Facebook, aggregation vs. original reporting, how AOL is faring with Patch, and search engine optimization. These are important topics, but perhaps an energizing frame like “news desert” can widen the aperture of thinking about journalism’s future and sharpen the focus on people’s and democracy’s needs — on journalism as public good.

Elites and the affluent are awash in information designed to serve them, but everyday people, who often grapple with significantly different concerns, are hungry for credible information they need to make their best life and citizenship decisions. Sadly, in many communities there’s just no oasis, no sustenance to be found — communities where the “new news ecosystem” is not a cliché but a desert.

The Chicago journalist Laura S. Washington introduced me to the desert frame, and she credits a South Side community organizer for originating it. Washington used it in her remarks in April when she and I were members of a panel called Journalism and Democracy: Rebuilding Media for our Communities at the 2011 National Conference for Media Reform. Suddenly a movie was running in the little screen in my mind: The protagonists were losing sleep on a hot night, worrying over life issues they might be able to resolve if only they had the right information — but there was no news oasis in the landscape of their lives, so they just kept tossing and turning. I couldn’t see if movies were playing in the heads of the hundreds of people in the hall listening to our panel, but they clearly got exactly what Washington meant.

So I’ve been using “news desert” in conversations and presentations over the last six months. It never fails to communicate powerfully.

“Gee,” a community leader in Haverhill, Massachusetts, said when I used it. “That sure describes us.”

Haverhill is a middle-income city of 60,879 whose daily newspaper and community radio station folded years ago and whose sole weekly is withering — and it will be the pilot city for the Banyan Project, a web journalism startup I lead that’s designed to sustain itself while serving communities and publics that other media tend to ignore. News deserts are places whose economies cannot sustain any established business model for journalism, for-profit or nonprofit, and Haverhill exemplifies one kind: municipalities whose news institutions have failed or faded as advertising has dried up and can no longer come close to meeting the information needs of the community and its people. Many rural communities fit this category as well.

Demographics rather than political boundaries define other news deserts categories. In a speech at the Media Giraffe Project’s 2006 Conference, I laid out how metropolitan newspapers across the land tailor their coverage to serve readers in the top two quintiles of the income distribution, ignoring the quite different information needs of everybody else — and that was before the five-year newspaper ad revenue nosedive caused widespread layoffs, further shriveling the supply of original reporting that is the bedrock of journalism’s public good. I didn’t have the news-desert frame back then, but when it comes to life-relevant original reporting it’s clear that it describes where the less-than-affluent American public tends to live.

Minority communities in big cities tend to be the most arid news deserts of all, a point Washington made in her NCMR panel presentation and in an In These Times essay. (A Chicago blogger’s item calling attention to her essay is the source of that one and only Google hit.) Washington’s desert phrase was a bit different.

“We live in a communications desert,” her essay begins. “How can this be, you say? Our 24/7 news cycle delivers…millions of words, bytes, video clips, posts, emails and tweets…Yet paradoxically, in this ‘revolutionary’ media age, our cities are parched for information and news coverage with context and quality.”

She cited foundation-funded research aimed at assessing the news needs of low-income and minority communities on Chicago’s West and South Sides. Low-income respondents in an 800-person phone survey were less connected than others on every measure tested. People told focus groups that they read Chicago’s dailies but found little that resonates with their lives.

And it’s not just the newspapers. In a speech in June, FCC commissioner Michael Copps cited a study that shows that black or Hispanic populations have fewer Internet-only news sites. “If the majority of hyperlocal sites are taking hold in affluent areas that can support advertising,” he said, “have we really dealt with diversity and competition, or have we just moved media injustice onto a new field?”

Desertification is on the march, claiming more and more communities as newspapers continue to wither and few Web efforts manage to replace more than a fraction of the original reporting that newspapers have abandoned (see Part I of this series). There are fresh examples from week to week and from coast to coast, but none is more vivid, or sadder, than the dramatic increase in aridity that newspaper readers in San Francisco Bay communities are surely experiencing right now.

The Bay Area News Group, which had been 13 dailies published by the Denver-based MediaNews chain, last month cut 34 newsroom positions across the group and combined five of its titles into two; in total, more than 100 employees lost their jobs. In one stroke, three papers died and the 10 survivors were all wounded. Readers will find the papers less reflective of their communities — they’ll have local news sections and most will have familiar nameplates, but their general news, sports, and comics pages will be more uniform. And, with the shrunken staff, original community reporting, which has been drying up for years as newspapers laid off reporters, will become even more parched.

Eric Newton, now senior advisor to the president of the Knight Foundation, was managing editor of The Oakland Tribune 20 years ago. In a posting to the Knight Blog, he recalled that he’d supervised a staff of 130 full-time journalists; after years of attrition the newsroom was home to only a dozen reporters — and this was before the newest cutbacks.

Newton recalled that Bob Maynard, The Tribune’s revered late publisher, had referred to the daily newspaper as “an instrument of community understanding.” Newton added, “We need some new instruments.”

Tomorrow: Might the elusive Web journalism model be neither for-profit nor non-profit?

Tom Stites, president and founder of the Banyan Project, which is building a model for web journalism as a reader-owned cooperative, was a 2010-2011 fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

Photo of Morocco’s Erg Chigaga by Joshua Benton.

Notes
  1. In addition to the single direct hit for “news desert”, Google also turns up 55,698 false positives, with “news” ending one phrase and “desert” starting the next. And, ironically, 48 hours before this piece was posted, my friend Doug Muder added a second, quoting me.

July 19 2011

14:30

Tackable, BANG collaborate on a location-based digital newspaper

Ever since he was a beat reporter at the Palo Alto Daily News and the Contra Costa Times, Luke Stangel has been thinking about how to improve finding and consuming news by adding more specific location data to news content.

Last year, he co-founded (with Ed Lucero) a company called Tackable to develop his ideas, and in February, we described here Tackable’s first product: a pair of iPhone apps that Tackable envisions as the basis for a social network that “organizes media on a map.”

Now Tackable has rolled out, in partnership with the newspapers of the Bay Area News Group, something much more complex and ambitious: an iPad app called TapIn BayArea, which Stangel describes as “the world’s first location-aware digital newspaper.” TapIn, at launch, is already an impressive, sophisticated product that shows potential to evolve in multiple ways. And its ability to engage users at various levels bodes well for its capacity to generate revenue.

The collaboration with BANG, the San-Francisco area cluster of the California Newspaper Partnership led by MediaNews Group, includes incubation space for the Tackable crew at the San Jose Mercury News. Jeff Herr, CNP’s VP/Digital, describes it as a “strategic partnership, with both partners sharing costs and both having a stake in the potential outcomes, which include expanding the product to other units of MediaNews Group and beyond.

TapIn is the first product that aims for a space envisioned by Ken Doctor here in his recent Lab post, “The Newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard,” in which he asked, “Imagine a world in which consumers can move their finger around a magic tablet surface, watching, listening, reading reviews and more?” TapIn may not completely fulfill Doctor’s vision, but it’s aiming to go there. After the launch, Doctor wrote on his blog: ” Potentially — and I cannot emphasize that word too much — it may become a prototypical product for the news industry, pointing a new way out of the hollowing-out landscape into which the news industry has meandered.”

Checking the reviews

During the Lab’s summer hiatus last week, a number of good descriptions of TapIn’s functionality were posted elsewhere, and rather than reinvent the wheel I’ll give you those links and move on to my impressions of where TapIn could be headed:

Not every user is going to be thrilled with the map as the basic navigational interface. The idea that men navigate with cardinal directions, while women navigate by landmarks, has scientific backing and implications for hardware and software design. Is it possible that some people (not necessarily women) will resist the map-based UI? Stangel says, “That was one of the things that came up in our focus groups. The ultimate goal is to produce a product that delights.” To that end, users can choose to access data via one of several views, with or without maps, including OnTap, a mix of the top six things that TapIn thinks you’re going to like. “We’re finding that people are clicking on OnTap a lot,” says Stangel. Right now, OnTap’s content is ranked mainly according to human editorial judgments, but eventually, the rankings will also be influenced by the crowd — frequently-shared material will bubble up — and by user customization in which users list preferences to get more personalized content. (“I want pizza but not Italian restaurants,” or “I like this sports team but not that one.”)

Down the road, Stangel has visions for upgrades ranging from version 1.1 all the way to 2.0. The ultimate goal, he says, is “a product that delights,” and the envisioned upgrades will aim for improvements in localization, personalization and customization, for all of which Stangel offers intriguing possibilities.

For example, TapIn is likely to accumulate many more optional layers of information organized on maps, which users will toggle on and off at will. In fact, Tackable plans to provide an API later this year so that third-party developers can add such layers — essentially apps within the app — catering to niche interests. Some of these layers could begin to appear in the next version, says Stangel, who paints a picture of layers focused on real estate, classifieds, sports scores, crime reports, and user interests like wine or gardening, all location-specific, all capable of generating topical conversations. (Herr also suggests fishing conditions as a map layer; and I can imagine more esoteric-interest layers like spelunking and underground urban exploration.)

To me, this potential multi-dimensional, data-rich, customizable environment is the flip side of concerns about comfort levels with the map interface. There is simply too much mappable news and information out there not to try this.

Leaving user input fuzzy

TapIn’s social layer is based on Gigs, a feature borrowed from the original Tackable phone app. Deliberately non-specific, Gigs simply allows users to place a red pin on the map and attach a post of some kind. This could be a restaurant recommendation or comment, but most intriguingly, it could be a question — “I’m here and have an hour to kill, anything cool to do nearby?” or “Does anybody know why traffic on this road is tied up?” or “What’s the story behind this interesting-looking building,” or “Can someone recommend a plumber who will come out here on a weekend?” “Post what you need and see who can deliver,” Herr says. “[We're] definitely just nibbling at the edges of a new marketplace like that.”

Indeed. I’m often struck by how quickly location-specific questions like, How do I kill 6 hours at the Denver airport are answered on Q&A sites like Ask Metafilter (and, not quite so quickly yet, on Quora). With local critical mass (how large?) the quality of such answers could be even better and faster on TapIn.

Stangel says Gigs was left “intentionally nebulous. We don’t put a lot of rules on what you ask for. You type in what you’re interested it. it could be a request for a photo. It could be simply, I saw something here and want to leave this digital beacon here to tell people about it.” The Gig pin and its associated content disappear after 24 hours — this is a pure real-time feature. People are starting to use it, and Tackable is watching to see how. “Our goal has been to create a robust community of people who live in a particular region and to give them the tools to really easily talk to one another, to ask one another questions, with the idea that they think and share local knowledge,” Stangel says.

In the course of the week since the app went public (on July 12), Stangel says downloads have been picking up exponentially, pushed along by Twitter talk, as well as by stories and promotions in the BANG papers. People are actively using the app and sharing links through it, Stangel says.

Where the money comes from

Herr spoke and emailed with me about the business side of TapIn. The principal revenue stream, of course, is expected to be advertising. “Geo-awareness just drives everything here,” he says. The tablet enables more elegant and engaging ads than prior websites, and Herr aims to use those capabilities. “We hand-selected some of the brightest advertisers in our markets because we need them to help us model out the ideal formulation.”

Clearly, additional revenue streams are possible down the road as well — for example, commissions on ticket sales generated through the app. An expansion of TapIn to the CNP’s southern California group, Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG), and to MediaNews’ Denver Post seems likely if the current rollout takes off with users and advertisers.

“From the start we looked for ways to engage people through game mechanics.”

One revenue stream will come from $4.99 per month user subscriptions (which kick in after a free introductory period during the summer), but a unique feature of Tapin is that active users can easily earn back the cost — and more — by earning credits for clicking on ads, sharing content or other forms of engagement. It’s an idea that might well be considered by other publications that have put up paywalls — just as electric meters can run backwards when homeowners install solar panels, engaged users could earn back their subscription fees by doing what you want them to do. (In the print world, many readers will tell you that the main reason they buy a Sunday paper is that they save more than the cost of the paper just by using some of the manufacturers’ coupons.)

Stangel says that what the team is calling the “earnout” feature came out of the CNP side of the collaboration. Every user action on a web site or app has a value — the user doesn’t know what it is; there’s no visible counter. But the site operator, the newspaper in this case, does. The team realized that “there could be a way for us to quantify the actions that people take on the app to essentially hold on to some of that value and trade it in for other things they find of value on the app,” Stangel says. Currently, they can do that at a store on the TapIn website that offers TapIn gear and merchant gift cards; eventually, this will happen within the app itself with a richer mix of offerings.

Here, too, I believe TapIn is potentially hitting a nerve and turning it to its advantage. As illustrated most recently by the Netflix pricing kerfuffle, whether it’s the slow economy or simply consumer fatique, people are reaching the limits of their willingness to spend more on digital services and content. So, especially when an app is clearly earning money from advertisers targeting me, why not give me a chance to reverse the meter by earning back my costs (and more) when I respond to the ads or engage my friends in the app?

All of this highlights the game-like aspects of TapIn. Herr points out, “From the start we looked for ways to engage people through game mechanics. We found in Tackable a perfect partner given their heritage in the gaming industry. They all worked in leading game-development shops on impressive game projects. I mean, they figured out how to coax couch potatoes up on their feet to jam on air guitars all night long!”

Soon after the introduction of the iPad, I posted here a set of iPad strategies for publishers. There is also a somewhat expanded version on my own blog. In the latter, I urged publishers to recognize that mobile will be ubiquitous; that content needed to be created and formatted specifically with the tablet’s capabilities in mind; to make everything personalized, customized and social; to forget about trying to emulate print with “issues” and “editions” on the tablet and recognize the atomization of content and the native capabilities of the new device; and to find new ways for merchants and brands to interact with consumers.

To me, TapIn hits the bulls-eye of those strategies. I’ll go a little further out on the limb than Ken Doctor’s “potentially” and say that TapIn is, in fact, the prototype (although certainly not the last word) for an innovative new class of apps and sites that can bring news publishers engagement with a brand new generation of consumers.

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