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June 14 2011

19:00

What Augmented Reality Can Do for the Media Industry

I attended the second annual Augmented Reality Event conference in Santa Clara, Calif., in May and it was ... interesting.

OK, it was a huge geekfest. The opening session was interrupted by people dressed in hazardous waste -- or maybe they were supposed to be pseudo-astronaut -- outfits, yelling about "free space," while wrapping the audience in yellow caution tape.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and free thinker best known for coining the term "virtual reality," opened his keynote speech by playing the khene, a traditional Laotian wind instrument that he says was the earliest conveyor of digital information.

Jaron Lanier at ARE 2011 from locative media on Vimeo.

But somewhere in the excitement of innovators being able to make Roger Hargreaves-style characters race across a flat surface if you hold your smartphone camera just so, were hints of what augmented reality, or AR, could do for the media industry.

Content needs to catch up

The two sessions devoted to content and AR were somewhat underwhelming, so you had to really use your imagination. Helen Papagiannis, an artist, designer, researcher and Ph.D. candidate, said content has to catch up to technology, but then she went on to show a live demonstration of making a virtual tarantula appear on her hand. Kinda cool. And Adriano Farano, a Knight Fellow at Stanford University, showed how he was able to superimpose photographs of what the university quad looked like just before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

That later got me to thinking about Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., and how some enterprising visual journalist, using AR and Microsoft's Bing maps and Photosynth technology, could virtually restore those communities for the people who live there and for future generations who won't know the towns as they used to be.

iOptik.jpg

Over in the showcase sessions, Innovega demonstrated how a special contact lens and sunglasses that look like Ray Bans (not the Geordi La Forge eyewear from Star Trek New Generation that you see in Sky Mall magazine) can project a 200-inch screen. That could almost make a transcontinental plane trip bearable. And the ladies at Clothia may have finally cracked the online clothes-buying nut with technology that not only lets you "try on" clothes, but photograph existing pieces and pair them with new ones you want to buy.

MVS Labs demonstrated a heads-up, in-car device that can display safety symbols, collision warnings, and drivers' map preferences. Maybe soon it will displace radio traffic reports with real-time warnings about upcoming delays.

Many of the speakers at ARE 2011 were keenly aware of the hype around virtual worlds and information, as well as the lack of standards. AR, after all, is still very new, and those of us who are developing in the space realize how inconvenient it is to walk around holding a Droid or an iPad to our eyes all the time. Heads-up displays and new technology such as NFC (Near-Field Communication) as well as content providers getting serious about what information users might really want in a virtual reality will help the medium mature.

October 22 2010

16:00

Using the power of publishing to influence: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s entry into the news biz

On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story on the prodigious corporate funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tax-exempt group that supports business-friendly policies and has been an aggressive spender in recent (and upcoming) elections. The story, by Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr., focuses on the secrecy surrounding donors to the Chamber, which the group is not required by law to report.

But money isn’t the only area where associations can be kept quiet. For the past several years, the Chamber has also invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local courts. It also runs an online-only national publication called Legal Newsline.

“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.

But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.

Local publications in allegedly business-unfriendly jurisdictions

Along with the national site, the Chamber-affiliated local publications are all set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation. There’s little else that would connect the states of Louisiana and West Virginia and the areas around East St. Louis, Illinois (Madison and St. Clair counties) and Beaumont, Texas. To give an idea of the flavor of the publications, here’s the about page for the Louisiana site, the Louisiana Record:

To be sure, whether one agrees or disagrees with the happenings at our courthouses, no one should believe that what happens at them is the norm. This year, Louisiana’s courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive) of top corporate lawyers and business executives.

Many accomplished local plaintiffs’ attorneys and erstwhile activists would argue that, in fact, they are the great leaders of their time, holding that Louisiana has it right and everyone else has it wrong.

On the flipside, many who drive this country’s economic engine — small businessmen, medical professionals and corporate executives — argue the opposite. They hold that plaintiffs’ attorneys use frivolous lawsuits to game the system and pillage private property. If every state were like ours, they say, America would be out of business.

At The Louisiana Record, we hope to provide an objective view of the playing field as well as an active forum for both sides of the argument so that all of us can decide for ourselves.

Similar phrasing appears at the West Virginia, Madison, and Southeast Texas sites. (The Madison site says a “welcome mat to class action filings and lottery-like awards have helped create a ‘judicial hellhole’ reputation.”)

The mention of a Harris Interactive survey refers to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which gave low marks to the jurisdictions where the Chamber publications are based.

Chamber says it does not interfere editorially

The publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, says the Chamber is no different than any other parent company. “The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone told me over email. “That was the deal upon which we agreed when I started the first Record in 2004 (I was a community newspaper publisher then) and it remains the deal today. Myself and my editorial team have full editorial control. There is no direction from ownership — thematic or otherwise.”

Timpone called his disclosure policy — explaining who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story — fair. He said in an email that that is when it is the best time to tell readers because it is “communicated in a useful, proper context.”

When asked for comment, a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement that it “has great respect for the norms of professional journalism. Our professional publisher, editors and reporters have strong journalistic backgrounds and skills, and operate under the highest professional standards and conduct.” The Chamber statement said it is not involved in the day-to-day of the operations, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.

Legal Newsline has the look and feel of a trade publication, the kind read by members of the legal community, lawmakers, and traditional reporters looking for story ideas. Several journalists I spoke with said they thought the Chamber should be more upfront about its connection, even if the journalists working for them publish accurate stories.

“I think they should just put on the site that they’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Mary Jacoby, the editor-in-chief of a legal publication called Main Justice, told me. (I wrote about Main Justice in May.) Jacoby is particularly irked because story subjects on the Chamber’s sites sometimes overlap with hers, which covers the Justice Department. Several of her reporters linked to Legal Newsline in their stories before she was aware that the site wasn’t an independent trade publication. “It’s news, it’s true that they have real news and they have real reporters, but they’re writing it from an agenda and trying to underline certain ideas that they have,” she said.

The importance of disclosure

For example, the current top story at the Southeast Texas Record is “With retirement announced, tort reform groups praise Judge Jack’s impact.” An excerpt:

[Retiring U.S. District Judge Janis Graham] Jack’s 2005 decision also “laid a corner stone for future investigations of abuse of the civil justice system,” according to Darren McKinney, spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association.

“We here at ATRA…are admiring of Judge Jack’s impact in Texas, which has long been known to be a judicial hellhole,” McKinney said. “Her decision reverberated throughout the nation.”

ATRA is the group that publishes an annual list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which it describes as “America’s most unfair jurisdictions.” Each of the areas covered by the Chamber publications is mentioned in the executive summary of the list — West Virginia as a “Hellhole,” Madison County, Ill., and the Gulf Coast of Texas on a Hellhole “Watch List,” and Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes as “other areas to watch.”

The Southeast Texas Record story also features approving quotes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, two groups that share the Chamber’s perspective on tort reform. But because the story does not mention the Chamber specifically, it carries no disclosure.

On the web, disclosure is perhaps even more important than in print. Readers aren’t necessarily making an active choice to consume information on Legal Newsline; as with any site on the web, visitors often arrive via search or a link from a mainstream source. USA Today, for example, has linked to articles on the site on its automatically aggregated topic pages. USA Today’s online editor Chet Czarniak said he’d take a look at the Chamber sites to see if the reader needs more of a heads up. “It’s been a while since we’ve done a full review” of the sources used in the topic pages, Czarniak said. “I think frankly, I’m now curious about the sites we have out there.”

This isn’t the first time the disclosure policy has come into question. In 2007, the Southeast Texas Record came under fire from plaintiff attorneys who said the print edition, which is distributed at the local courthouse, was a dubious attempt to influence jurors.

Nonprofit journalism is booming, at the local and national level. When our Jim Barnett was trying to suss out what makes a nonprofit news outlet “legit” in his eyes, he cited financial transparency as a key element. Looking at the front page of one of the Chamber’s publications, that transparency is sometimes hard to see.

August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

April 15 2010

15:26

The Newsonomics of content arbitrage

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

We’re into a new age of digital news content. Every conceivable kind of company is starting to produce it and find homes for it. Smarter advertising strategies are matching up against the new content. Mix and match exploding content creation with ahead-of-the-curve ad targeting, and you’ve got a new math.

Presto: Content arbitrage. Forget “curators”; an accurate but museum-musty term for judgment. As news sites have branched out, bringing in community bloggers and sites, “hiring” top-end bloggers, we’ve come up with the genteel “curation,” a popular term at this week’s ASNE conference, a hot (well, warming) bed of such forward-reaching ideas.

So if want to move beyond “editors,” with its old-world connotations, to get at a reaching out, an aggregation of more content, what’s the proper word? Well, aggregator is technically correct, but it’s Terminator-like. News people don’t like to think of themselves copying the the first, big aggregators like Yahoo, Google, MSN and Huffington Post. (Each of which, not incidentally, sees great next-stage opportunity in content brokerage and are competitors to news companies in this area going forward.)

So let me suggest a title that fits what is going on, though it will make “editors” uneasy: “Content brokers.” I’m not suggested that anyone change a job title to “content broker,” but rather to recognize that’s a huge role going forward. (And even backwards, for us veteran features editors who understood that buying content from diverse syndicates, wires and freelancers was an essential part of the business.)

Let’s go to the newsonomics of content brokering.

Demand Media, fairly and not, has become the poster child of the content-and-ad arbitrage. It’s both been derided as an amoral, slave-wage content farm and marveled at for its absolute smarts about the value of content, and its creation. Just last week, Demand announced a deal to power a “Travel Tips” section for USAToday.com; earlier it had done a lower-profile deal with AJC.com, in Atlanta

It’s just one example of news companies starting to get it about content brokering. The principle is simple: Obtain the highest quality content you can (or at least sufficient to what the market of readers and advertisers demand) at the lowest possible cost. Then, make sure you can make a profit over each set of obtained content. We all understand the idea: Buy low, sell high.

Demand will pay, say, $35 for an article of new treatments for spring allergies, knowing how many pageviews its distribution networks can generate and what cost-per-thousand rates it can get. Maybe it makes $100 or $300 on that article. Maybe it makes a lot more. You can do lots more arithmetic here, with thousands of stories, higher-priced ones and even “free” user-gen ones. The principle, though, is the same.

Newspapers understand that principle. For decades, they employed large newsroom staffs, paid them what they had to, sold advertising, at expectable and rising rates, and took in margins of 20-percent-plus. That’s content-and-ad arbitrage, though it moved at glacial speed and seemed more like a constitutional principle than an evolving business, subject to change.

Now, the arbitrage business is moving at warp speed. Consider just a few of many brokerage initiatives:

  • The New York Times is “buying” content from the Chicago News Cooperative to power its local Chicago edition. It will soon do the same with the emerging Bay Citizen in California. The economics are key here: The Times can’t afford to add full-time staffers at $100k a pop; it can afford something less to get its standard of journalism from other sources.
  • Seattle is hosting the battle royale to aggregate local bloggers. The now-online-only Seattle P-I, led by Michelle Nicolosi, has been signing up bloggers for years, and hosts more than 200 of them, who use the P-I’s publishing system. Across town, Bob Payne, communities director of The Seattle Times, is working with 22 hyperlocal sites in the region. That’s a J-Lab-funded project, which the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer are also trying. All the newspaper sites get more content, as blogs and bloggers get more notice and traffic.
  • Hearst recently signed up Bleacher Report to provide fan-generated sports content for its sites.
  • Demand’s growing list of competitors to provide brokered content to news companies (and others) includes Associated Content, Helium, Seed, and Examiner, although there are signal differences among them. Outside.In and FWIX both offer pointers to local content of interest and have done deals with news websites.
  • Poynter Institute is even putting a finer point of the business of getting cheaper content, hosting a “Stretching Your News Budget with User Content” seminar in May.

Some of this content brokering brings in community-oriented “user-gen.” Some of it brings in useful content in niche areas, like sports, travel, family, religion and much more. Some does both.

Is there a danger in content arbitrage? It’s value-neutral; it’s all in how you do it. Let’s remember that journalism is essentially a manufacturing process, with as much or as little value added as we want.

On a brand- and content-integrity level, it’s all in exercising good judgment — but against a much wider array of choices. On a business level, it’s making sure you are buying low and selling high. Ironically, many news companies are starting to bring in more content — mostly from local bloggers and sites — but few are seeing ad departments monetize it well. That’s buying cheaply, but if you don’t sell it, it’s not really much of a business advance. That should be temporary, if news publishers and editors take content brokering to heart.

Photo by Petra Sell used under a Creative Commons license.

January 19 2010

18:34

5 Recent Big Moves In Hyper-Local News

The pace of change for hyper-local news sites and related businesses is dizzying.
It's hard to keep up, especially if you try to pay attention to business moves made by large players, as well as innovations that bubble up from local, independent news sites.

This year already began with large companies and investors making moves into hyper-local news. At the same time, experiments with foundation money continued, such as J-Lab's Networked News project. J-Lab also announced another request for proposals for grants for community news startups with a deadline of March 1, and proposals that support or create local news sites have advanced into the second round of the Knight News Challenge. Winners will be announced in June.

A key source for information on the big business moves in local news sites is paidContent.org, which focuses on the business of digital media.
And if you are looking for analysis and trends among independent sites, a great source is Michele McLellan, a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. McLellan is researching community news startups, civic engagement and community building. She also writes for the Knight Digital Media Center's leadership blog and is @michelemclellan on Twitter.

With change coming at such a rapid pace, it's important to take stock of some of the most notable developments from recent weeks and months. Here are the five biggest recent moves in hyper-local news.

Datasphere raised $10.8 million

Datasphere, the company that has helped Fisher Communications of the Seattle area set up and sell a network of hyper-local news sites to compete with local bloggers, announced it has raised $10.8 million in funding. That number is large compared with the common figures of $1 million or $2 million for other local news ventures, and Datasphere's approach stirred up resentment among local, independent bloggers. Datasphere's website also details partnerships with Cowles Media for a hyper-local network in the Monterey and Santa Barbara markets in California, and with Fisher Communications in Portland and Eugene, Ore.

Outside.in raised $7 million

Outside.in, the hyper-local aggregator of blogs and other news sources, also raised a large chunk of money: $7 million in Series B funding, announced in early December. CNN took a stake in the company and will feature feeds from Outside.in on its website, using Outside.in for Publishers. The aggregator, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., also has agreements with other publishers to provide feeds to their sites. In addition, Outside.in is hiring, and has a new community manager active on Twitter who is sharing and soliciting information from local sites.

U.S. Local partners with L.A. Times

The U.S. Local News Network is partnering with the Los Angeles Times for its third local site, covering Orange County. The companies will cross-sell ads and share content. U.S. Local News Network staffers will work out of the Times office in Costa Mesa, according to the paper. For more background, check paidContent's in-depth reporting on the network, which plans to roll out to 40 more cities during the next two years. The president of the company is Chris Jennewein, former online head of the San Diego Union Tribune. His experience includes time with Greenspun Interactive, Knight Ridder, including the San Jose Mercury News and the Mercury Center, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The New York Times partners with CUNY

The New York Times is expanding its collaboration with City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism". CUNY will now assume day-to-day editorial leadership of The Local, the Times' community website serving residents of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, N.Y. Journalism school faculty will serve as editors and work with students to enlist residents to cover news.

The work is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the McCormick Tribune Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Another Times Local site serving Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange, N.J., remains under the Times. Founding editor Tina Kelley was among the journalists who took a buyout from the Times in December. Replacing her is Lois Desocio, a local resident who recently received her master's in journalism from CUNY.

Patch.com expands recruiting

Patch.com, a startup of networked hyper-local sites bought by AOL in May 2009, has listed job postings for regional publishers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., editorships in California, and other positions in Boston and Chicago.

AOL bought Patch.com for about $7 million. At the time, Patch had five hyper-local sites in its network. In October 2009, "Patch announced ambitious expansion plans for New York state": http://paidcontent.org/article/419-aols-patch-plans-big-new-york-expansion/, launching sites in Long Island and Westchester County.

Andria Krewson is a freelance journalist and consultant from Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at newspapers for 27 years, focusing on design and editing of community niche publications. She blogs for her neighborhood at Under Oak and covers changing culture at Crossroads Charlotte. Twitter: underoak

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