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March 29 2011

18:58

Mobilizing online communities in the Face of Disaster: Tips from NetSquared Local Organizers

On the 12th of March, one day after the tragic earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan Ichi - Hiroyasu Ichikawa - the NetSquared Local organizer from Tokyo sent an e-mail to our NetSquared Local Organizer listserve asking for the best practices for mobilizing online communities in the time of a disaster. In the weeks that have followed, Ichi’s e-mail provoked a series of responses from all over the world. In this post, we hope to voice many of the tools, resources, and tactics that have been shared, in hopes of encouraging others around the world to get involved with the digital relief efforts.

 

In response to Ichi, Paula Brantner from the Washington DC Local group suggested taking advantage of the international project called Crisis Commons that sprung into action after the recent Haiti earthquake. Crisis Commons is specifically designed to crowd source the technology needed to leverage communications in the event of a disaster, it helps in finding volunteers and is summing up all of the hand-on actions designed to support the cause.

 

Amy Sample Ward from the New York group has followed Paula’s e-mail with further suggestions on how and where to aggregate information. One of the online spaces she mentioned was the Google Crisis Response page where you can find the latest information about the crisis as well as make simple donations to the organizations involved in supporting the efforts in Japan. She has also provided the link to the Wikipedia page devoted to the 2011 Tokyo earthquake and tsunami. This resource is an important point of reference for everyone interested in the latest events related to the tragedy, as it has been visited and edited by a lot of people and therefore appears high in the search results.


Shufang Tsai from the Taiwan group shared information from one of her community members about an experience with the previous Chilean earthquake that occurred in 2010. The ideas that came from the Chile earthquake experience included setting up a situation map using Ushahidi on the crodmap.com site and asking the volunteers to search through the media news and put them all together in an easily accessible Google Doc. The information could be then added to the Ushahidi map. Other suggestions of the community member in Japan included the usage of the Tweak the Tweet to collect the information from the twitter and facebook. He has also highlighted the importance of keeping the volunteers data saved somewhere (i.e. a Google Doc).


Sarah Schacht from the group that meets in Seattle has put Ichi in touch with the representatives from Crisis Commons and suggested he should list himself at the Honshu Quake Activities @ Crisis Commons wiki. Sarah has also forwarded his information to the Web of Change  to attract tech volunteers.


Jonathan Eyler-Werve from the Chicago group added another wiki link to the conversation – the example of how the source has been used to aggregate the information about the Libyan uprising.
Shufang then summed up the online response information and sent links to (among others):

  • Open source disaster management system Sahana (in Japanese language only)

and to various online sources that work with maps such as:

 

  • ESRI distaster reponse

The next day (13th of March) Ichi sent us the result of this facebook group work (in Japanese language only) as well as a link to the articles he has been writing (in Japanese language only). He also highlighted the importance of learning the lesson from all of the social media crisis responses and planning a long term strategy for the digital curation in case of disaster.

 

In a response to Ichi JD Lasica from the group in San Francisco shared links to the interviews with Andy Carvin who had been instrumental in setting up the Hurricane Information Center and the subsequent Crisis Camp for Haiti:

Rachel Weidinger from TechSoup Global sent the group links to resources and recovery guides available on the techsoup.org site - Disaster Planning and Recovery Toolkit.

 

JD Godchaux from NiJel - a community mapping platform seconded Shufangs’ suggestion to work with Crisis Mappers and encouraged Ichi to join the CrisisMappers list. The project was launched locally on March 11th by a Japanese member of the Open Street Map (OSM) community. The crisis map is being supported by onsite volunteers (mainly in Tokyo) along with a group of students (mainly Japanese) out of Boston lead by The Fletcher School. JD also mentioned another instance of Ushahidi to track radiation levels from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  

 

The last comment in the threat came from Ichi, who shared the link to the socialmedia dashboard on Netvibes set by him to catch up the current event. Netvibes is a free web site that allows users to set up their own customized start page composed of "modules" which can contain a wide variety of information from dozens and dozens of other sites. It is a great tool to fetch, store and manage various web sources and make the process transparent and easy to access for everyone.

 

The entire conversation happened within the 72 hours from the Japanese earthquake and wasn’t stopped when the radiation threat became an issue, nor was it paused by the power outrage caused by the disaster.  As the Japanese tragedy proves the role of social media in times of a disaster remains a subject of an ongoing conversation. It highlights the importance of connecting with like-minded people to pool the efforts and delegate responsibilities in the times of crisis. We hope that this post will help others who would like to contribute to the relief of the Japanese tragedy and other disasters that will inevitably happen in the future.

 

Do you have any other tips or tools for Ichi or anyone else who is interested in using the web to provide digital disaster relief? If so, please share your suggestions in the comments below!

March 15 2011

14:00

News portal, super aggregator, and mega-curator: PBS builds a new site from scratch with PBSNews.org

PBS finds itself with what could be the definition of a “good” problem. (Well, not that defunding problem, but another one.) Here’s the scenario: Under the PBS umbrella you’ll find news shows like PBS Newshour, Frontline, and Nightly Business Report, among others, all producing content that lives primarily on air and on individual websites. While video clips and stories are pulled into PBS.org, that site’s primary function is not to be a news source like, say, its cousin NPR.org.

With all that news and information swirling around PBS, though, it makes sense to have a sort of super aggregator, something to pull together the threads from various shows around news or topics. Think about it: What if on a broad story like the economic crisis, you could pull together a NewsHour interview with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on changes to borrowing policies for US banks along with a Frontline clip from “Breaking the Bank” on the merger of Bank of America and Merill Lynch? Of course what we’re talking about is not simply aggregation, but also curation — and actually, considering the hours of shows PBS has at its disposal, mega-curation.

Consider all of this and you’ll know where the team behind the PBS News Blog is coming from. It’s PBS’ effort to launch a new site that is both a news portal for readers and a new channel for PBS programming. The new site, which should launch soon, will be called PBSNews.org: The News Navigator.

When I spoke with Tom Davidson, PBS.org’s senior director and publisher for news and public affairs, he told me the new project will essentially start from scratch, partly because a central news division has never been part of PBS, but also because PBS wants to take advantage of the opportunity to build a smarter news site. “Historically PBS has tended to not create content itself — it was founded as a programming service” that would pool member stations’ financial resources “to allow other independent producers to make that content,” Davidson said.

Over the years, PBS has built out a universe of news and current events programming — and in recent years, that’s been matched by further investment in digital tools and websites starting with PBS.org, Davidson said. Again, they’ve created a good problem.

Instead of offering another site for breaking news, the News Navigator team wants to build a site that moves past daily headlines and offers more comprehensive coverage on news or topics — the kind that can come to bear when you have a satellite staff of journalists, producers, and documentarians working on pieces. That staff will rotate around a central hub, the News Navigator staff (which is growing as we speak), which will include producers, data specialists, writers, and editors.

So what could the News Navigator look like? Davidson said the mission will be to present “the knowledge that defines what’s going on on a story behind the headline.”

More specifically they want to meet the balance of context and timeliness in news by having something similar to topic pages that would provide news, raw data sets, timelines, video and other background from across PBS programs. These deep dives, as they call them, will include areas like Afghanistan, same sex marriage, health care, and Congress.

The point in all this context-focused curation isn’t to out-NYT the NYT, but rather to add value by finding new angles on big stories. “I will try lots of crazy things,” Davidson said. “But I’m not going to try and take on CNN.com, CBS.com or NYTimes.com. We lost that battle 15 years ago. Let’s not fight that battle now.”

PBS is also creating issue clashes — an adaptation of a familiar feature of many PBS news shows, the two-analyst, head-to-head debate, adapted for online. Think Shields and Brooks, only on the web — and with the audience empowered not only to vote on the winner, but also to add their own arguments.

Of course, there are hurdles in building out a new news site, particularly one that will need to pull news and videos from across a multitude of other sites, each of those operating off of different frameworks and content management systems. It’s not as easy as connecting tube A to slot B. Instead of trying to put all its programs under one system, PBS instead decided to build the equivalent of a massive card catalog, naming it Merlin. Merlin is essentially a database of PBS content tagged with metadata to allow sites, either from programs or member stations, to pull up material they would like to use. (Merlin was a contributing factor in PBS.org’s recent redesign and iPad offering.)

Jason Seiken, senior vice president of Interactive, Product Development and Innovation for PBS, told me that Merlin came from the need for something that could act as a publisher and distributor of content that would benefit both programs and stations. Once stories or videos are tagged, they can be pulled up on PBS.org, the News Navigator, or WGBH, as an example. “Merlin is in essence a distribution channel,” Seiken said. “It turns PBS.org into a distribution network for local stations.”

Along with Merlin, PBS rolled out a standalone video player and management system called COVE. (While it may seem like online video is ubiquitous, in the past there was no quick, easy, or unified way for stations and programs to share video on their sites, Seiken said.) COVE allows sites to pull together video from across PBS in the same player, meaning a piece from KQED could be coupled with a feature from Need to Know or Sesame Street.

After PBSNews.org makes its debut, Davidson said it will still be in something of a rolling beta. He sees the site as a startup whose features PBS will constantly adjust. The challenge for PBSNews.org, Davidson said, will be growing an audience for it while also finding its place within the PBS family. Its job won’t be to recreate what others have done, but instead to complement and synthesize it. “We don’t see ourselves competing with NewsHour on reporting the news of the day,” Davidson said. Instead, “we see ourselves first and foremost as translators for the consumers.”

February 09 2011

15:00

NewsTrust Baltimore takes a local approach to media literacy and showcasing new journalism

NewsTrust sees its mission as helping readers find “good journalism” by giving people the tools to separate good from bad. But when it comes to journalism, good and bad aren’t exactly universal truths anymore. Is a story good if it adheres to facts but lacks strong writing? Is a story bad if it’s on a blog, regardless of how it’s reported? And what if its told through an ideological or political lens different from your own?

While NewsTrust has previously employed its tools for vetting journalism on a national level, their newest test, NewsTrust Baltimore, takes things to a smaller scale — namely one where readers’ connection to news is based on geography (will a new school be built? is the police department cutting staff? did the legislature cut taxes?) and necessity.

That familiarity, with both the news and outlets reporting it, could make for a better experiment in media criticism as well as media literacy. Who better to judge the Baltimore Sun or WYPR than the people who live in the area?

When I spoke to Fabrice Florin, executive director of NewsTrust, he said their two-month Baltimore project makes sense because of the upheaval in local journalism, as staffs and resources have shrunk at traditional media outlets in the region. At the same time new blogs and alternative media, some created by former journalists, are cropping up.

“The news ecosystem in Baltimore is fascinating. It’s extremely diverse right now,” he told me.

That’s reflected in NewsTrust Baltimore’s partners, ranging from The Sun and WYPR to Baltimore Brew, Urbanite Magazine and local Patch sites. Stories from these sites are aggregated on NewsTrust Baltimore where local reviewers can rate them. (NewsTrust also has a widget that a number of partners are using that allow readers to review stories without having to leave their site.) The rating tools let reviews decide whether stories are factual, fair, well-sourced, well written, and provide context. Beyond that, it also asks whether reviewers trust the publication and would recommend the story. A glance at a recent review shows promising signs:

This would seem to be an in-depth investigative piece, presenting multiple points of view. I can cite no part of it that I know for certain is erroneous or slanted. Therefore I must cautiously assume it to be an informative article. However, I have past experiences with this publication that cause me to bring a skeptical eye to it.

Florin said the value to news organizations is a balanced, structured system to offer feedback. (Contrast that review with what you might see in the comment section at the end of stories.) “Going through the review process the participant is forced to explicitly give criticism,” he said. “The rating system is based on journalist qualities, and when they click on rating buttons they’re giving actionable feedback to the journalist.”

Of course, a smart series of buttons does not automatically make one a media critic. Florin said they offer helpful explainers to what “fair” or “factual” mean to a story. Additionally they’re putting together a library of guides on media literacy and the basics of thinking like a journalist — although that too can be contentious turf.

The goal isn’t to a better informed citizenry, not to make readers think like journalists. That also means trying to foster a broader news appetite among readers. That means exposing readers to the wider variety of media outside of traditional news sources. “There are people who are doing good journalism on the fringes and not necessarily getting the recognition they deserve,” Florin said. “This is where NewsTrust shines.”

They’ve created a formidable regional news aggregator, one that is headed up by editors and a community manager, which makes NewsTrust Baltimore something of a news hub for the region. “In a different world, if we were a for-profit, we could offer a very credible news consumer destination,” Florin said. “We’re really proud of our feed. We really do aggregate the best journalism in Baltimore.” In that sense, NewsTrust Baltimore is more than just an experiment in media literacy or a response to shrinking news sources. By presenting a menu of local news sources, NewsTrust Baltimore is encouraging people to sample broadly and rate their server.

Food analogies aside, NewsTrust could potentially set up franchises (sorry) around the country, with NewsTrust sites for communities with an abundance of new and traditional news sources. Though the Baltimore project is expected to run two months, the NewsTrust team did apply for a Knight News Challenge grant to continue their work and develop funding models to make the project sustainable.

“We’re careful, we don’t want to disrupt the ecosystem. We want to add value to it,” Florin said. “We don’t want to replace the people who are there.”

January 28 2011

15:30

December 20 2010

17:24

NPR's Project Argo Creates National Content at the Local Level

argo_promo_sites_sm.jpg Jason and the Argonauts were the mythological Greek heroes who set off on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Like its namesake, NPR's Project Argo is off on another noble quest -- to strengthen local journalism, particularly on digital platforms. Project Argo is a partnership between NPR and member stations, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its focus is building and launching niche, topic-focused websites for NPR member stations that can be models for the rest of the system.

We're proving the notion that a news organization can quickly build authority, engagement and traffic without large-scale increases in newsroom staff. Argo sites are piloted by one reporter-blogger (in a couple of cases, two reporters share one full-time job).

The topics we cover vary from Global Health to Higher Education and from Climate Change to Crime and the Courts. Argo stations include Oregon Public Broadcasting, KQED and KALW in San Francisco, KPCC in Pasadena, KPBS in San Diego, KPLU in Seattle, Minnesota Public Radio, WBUR and WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, WXPN in Philadelphia and WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Although each of the Argo sites is producing very different types of content, they're linked to one another in a network dedicated to quality journalism. We think you'll find the same serendipity that carries you from a climate change story to a health care story on NPR programs such as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" will also inform and entertain you online in the Argo network. The organizing principle is that you will find the same high level of quality throughout the network.

Reporting, Aggregation, Community

Make no mistake; the Project Argo sites are local. But we are covering news that resonates nationally. WBUR's blog, CommonHealth, may become your new favorite site devoted to reporting on health care costs if you live in Boston. But it might also be required reading if you live anywhere, from Chicago to Corpus Christie, from Miami to Missoula, and anywhere else in between.

The Argo sites are based upon the principle that in order to bring the world to our readers, our reporters must report and write outstanding enterprise blog posts. But they must pay equal attention to curating the conversation by aggregating the best content from across the web that is relevant to his or her beat, and by fostering and participating in a robust community.

As a key deliverable for Project Argo, we were expected to build a new free-standing, web-based content management system using open source code and free software commonly available. By the end of the project's pilot phase (December 2011), we will open source that platform.

Platform

In building the platform, the questions we needed to answer were:

  • Will it allow journalists to publish quickly with minimal training?
  • Will it allow journalists to perform the role of content curator and community manager? In other words, can we empower a single person to run an entire site?
  • How can we ensure we use entirely, or as much as possible, open source software for easy and low-cost reuse throughout public media?

To achieve the goals, we needed to build a foundation for the Argo Network that could provide the structural underpinnings for any Argo site, and at the same time be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of individual sites.

WordPress provided the most advanced starting point of the options we evaluated in terms of basic blog publishing. We have added a good deal of customization and also integration of other open source or free technologies like Django, Delicious and TwitterTim.es to create efficiencies, promote content and create a new way of displaying aggregated headlines.

All 12 websites were live by the end of August 2010. We will check in back here at Idea Lab from time to time to talk about various features that we roll out, and overall progress. We'll also be completely transparent about our process and training for Argo bloggers at our Argo Project blog. Let us know how we're doing and what you might like to see.

December 17 2010

19:30

This Week in Review: Taking sides on WikiLeaks, the iPad/print dilemma, and the new syndication

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The media and WikiLeaks’ uneasy coexistence: The current iteration of the WikiLeaks story is about to move into its fourth week, and it continues to swallow up most future-of-journalism news in its path. By now, it’s branched out into several distinct facets, and we’ll briefly track down each of those, but here are the essentials this week: If you want the basics, Gawker has put together a wonderful explainer for you. If you want to dive deep into the minutiae, there’s no better way than Dave Winer’s wikiriver of relevant news feeds. Other good background info is this Swedish documentary on WikiLeaks, posted here in YouTube form.

The big news development this week was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s release from British jail on bail Thursday. As blow-by-blow accounts of the legal situation go, you can’t beat The Guardian’s. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is trying to build a conspiracy case against Assange by connecting him more explicitly to Bradley Manning’s leak, and Congress heard testimony on the subject Thursday.

— The first WikiLeaks substory is the ongoing discussion about the actions of the legions of web-based “hacktivists,” led by Anonymous, making counterattacks on WikiLeaks’ behalf. Having gone after several sites last week (including one mistakenly), some activists began talking in terms of “cyber-war” — though GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram cautioned against that type of language from all sides — and were urged on from jail by Assange. NYU professor Gabriella Coleman gave a glimpse into the inner workings of Anonymous, and they also drew plenty of criticism, too, from thinkers like British author Andrew Keen. Media consultant Deanna Zandt offered a thoughtful take on the ethics of cyber-activism.

— The second facet here is the emergence of Openleaks, a leaking organization formally launched this week by WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg as an alternative to Assange’s group. As Domscheit-Berg explained to several outlets including Forbes, Openleaks will act as a more neutral conduit to leaks than WikiLeaks, which ended up publishing its leaks, something Openleaks won’t do. Wired compared it with WikiLeaks’ rejected 2009 Knight News Challenge proposal, in which it would have functioned primarily as an anonymous submission system for leaks to local news organizations. Openleaks won’t be the last, either: As The Economist noted, if file-sharing is any guide, we’ll see scores of rivals (or comrades).

— The third story is the reaction of various branches of the traditional media, which have been decidedly mixed. WikiLeaks has gotten some support from several corners of the industry, including the faculty of the venerable Columbia School of Journalism, the press in Assange’s native Australia, and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy and numerous other British and American professors and journalists, both in The Guardian. But it’s also been tweaked by others — at the Nieman Foundation Thursday, New York Times editor Bill Keller said that if Assange is a journalist, “he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.”

Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald ripped what he called the mainstream media’s “servile role” to the government in parroting its attitudes toward WikiLeaks, then later argued that the government’s prosecution of WikiLeaks would be a prosecution of investigative journalism in general. Arianna Huffington also chastised the establishment media, arguing that they’re just as much establishment as media. Likewise, Morris’ Steve Yelvington listed five reasons the media hasn’t shown outrage about the government’s backlash against WikiLeaks, including the point that the segment of the American mainstream media concerned about national issues is a shell of its former self.

— All of this provided plenty of fodder for a couple of conferences on WikiLeaks, Internet freedom, and secrecy. Last weekend, the Personal Democracy Forum held a symposium on the subject — you can watch a replay here, as well as a good summary by GRITtv and additional videos on the state of the Internet and online civil disobedience. Micah Sifry offered a thoughtful take on the event afterwards, saying that longings for a “more responsible” version of WikiLeaks might be naive: It’s “far more likely that something far more disruptive to the current order — a distributed and unstoppable system for spreading information — is what is coming next,” he wrote.

And on Thursday, the Nieman Foundation held its own one-day conference on journalism and secrecy that included keynotes by the AP’s Kathleen Carroll and Keller (who distanced himself from Assange but defended The Times’ decision to publish). If you want to go deeper into the conversation at the conference, the #niemanleaks hashtag on Twitter is a good place to start.

Will the iPad eat into print?: The iPad news this week starts with the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, which released a study that suggests, based on survey data, that iPad news apps may cut into newspaper subscriptions by next year. There’s a ton of other interesting data on how iPads are being used and how users are comparing them to print newspapers and newspaper websites, but one statistic — 58 percent of those who subscribe to a print newspaper and use their iPad for more than an hour a day planned to cancel their print subscription within six months — was what drew the headlines. Alan Mutter said publishers have to like the demographics of the iPad’s prime users, but have to wonder whether developing print-like iPad apps is worth it.

Several news organizations introduced new iPad apps this week, led by CNN. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow talked to CNN about the rationale behind its photo-oriented multitouch design, and MocoNews’ Ingrid Lunden looked at why CNN might have made their app free. Steve Safran of Lost Remote liked the app’s design and sociability. Also, the New York Daily News launched a paid (though cheaper than the New York Post) app, and Harper’s added its own iPad offering as well.

Meanwhile, Flipboard, the inaugural iPad app of the year, launched a new version this week. Forbes’ Quentin Hardy talked to Flipboard’s CEO about the vision behind the new app, and The Wall Street Journal wrote about innovative iPad news apps in general. The Washington Post’s Justin Ferrell talked to the Lab’s Justin Ellis about how to design news apps for the iPad. In advertising, Apple launched its first iPad iAd, which seems to be essentially a fully formed advertisement app. One iPad app that’s not coming out this week: Rupert Murdoch’s “tablet newspaper” The Daily, whose launch has reportedly been postponed until next year.

Looking ahead to 2011: We’re nearing the end of the December, which means we’re about to see the year-end reviews and previews start to roll in. The Lab got them kicked off this week by asking its readers for predictions of what 2011 will bring in the journalism world, then publishing the predictions of some of the smartest future-of-news folks in the room.

All of the posts are worth checking out, but there are a few I want to note in particular — The AP’s Jonathan Stray on moving beyond content tribalism (“a news product that refuses to provide me with high-quality filtering and curation of the rest of the world’s information will only ever be an endpoint”), NPR’s Matt Thompson on instant speech transcription (“the Speakularity”), tech pioneer Dave Winer on adjusting to the new news distribution system (“That’s the question news people never seem to ask. How can we create something that has a market?”), and a couple of paid-content predictions on The New York Times and by Steven Brill (who has skin in the game).

The prediction post that generated the most discussion was NYU professor Clay Shirky’s piece on the dismantling of the old-media syndication system. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on the idea, connecting it explicitly to Google News and the Associated Press, and asking, “In a world where the power to syndicate is available to all, does anyone want what AP is selling?” USC’s Pekka Pekkala explained why he sees this as a positive development for journalists and niche content producers.

As if on cue, Thomson Reuters announced the launch of its new American news service, one that seems as though it might combine traditional news syndication with some elements of modern aggregation. Media analyst Ken Doctor gave some more details about the new service and its deal with the Tribune Co., and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan was skeptical of this potential new direction for newswires.

Reading roundup: A few good pieces before I send you on your way:

— First, one quick bit of news: The social bookmarking service Delicious was reportedly shutting down, but a Friday blog post seemed to indicate it may live on outside of Yahoo. Here’s a short ode from Mark Luckie at 10,000 Words and a list of alternatives from Search Engine Land.

— At the London Review of Books, British journalist John Lanchester has written an essay making a case for why and how the newspaper industry needs to charge for news online. Anti-paywall folks aren’t going to be crazy about it, but it’s far from the stereotypical revanchist “Make ‘em pay, just ’cause they should” pro-pay argument: “Make the process as easy as possible. Make it invisible and transparent. Make us register once and once only. Walls are not the way forward, but walls are not the same thing as payment, and without some form of payment, the press will not be here in five years’ time.”

— A couple of close looks at what news organizations are doing right: The Atlantic’s web transformation and tips on multimedia storytelling from NPR’s acclaimed Planet Money.

— A North Carolina j-prof and Duke grad student came together (!) to urge news organizations to incorporate more of the tenets of citizen journalism. They have a few specific, practical suggestions, too.

— British journalist Adam Westbrook gave his goodbye to mainstream media, making a smart case that the future lies outside its gates.

— Finally, Jonathan Stray, an AP editor and Lab contributor, has a brilliant essay challenging journalists and news organizations to develop a richer, more fully formed idea of what journalism is for. It may be a convicting piece, but it offers an encouraging vision for the future — and the opportunity for reform — too.

December 16 2010

16:00

Jonathan Stray: In 2011, news orgs will finally start to move past the borders of their own content

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Today, our predictor is Jonathan Stray, interactive technology editor for the Associated Press and a familiar byline here at the Lab. His subject: the building of new multi-source information products, and whether it’ll be news organizations that do the building.

2011 will be the year that news organizations finally start talking about integrated products designed to serve the complete information needs of consumers, but it won’t be the year that they ship them.

News used to be more or less whatever news organizations published and broadcast. With so many other ways to find out about the world, this is no longer the case. Professional journalism has sometimes displayed an antagonistic streak towards blogs, Wikipedia, and social media of all types, but it’s no longer possible to deny that non-journalism sources of news are exciting and useful to people.

Unencumbered by such tribalism — and lacking content creation behemoths of their own — the information technology industry has long understood the value of curating multiple sources, including traditional news content. Google web search was the first truly widespread digital public information system. RSS allowed readers to assemble their own news feeds. Mid-decade, Wikipedia exploded into the one of the top ten sites on the web, used as much for news as for reference. The business practices of news aggregators angered publishers, but there’s no getting around the fact that they are tremendously useful tools. The most recent change in information distribution is social. Twitter has become an entirely new form of news network, while Facebook wants media organizations to use their social infrastructure to reach users.

But as of yet, there are few integrated products. Flipboard comes closest with its slick integration of socially filtered news, and now they’ve announced collaborations with several news organizations for seamless delivery of professional content — the user no longer has to open a link in the browser to read an article from, say, The Washington Post. Flipboard aims to be the starting point for my exploration of the news, whereas a news product that refuses to provide me with high-quality filtering and curation of the rest of the world’s information will only ever be an endpoint, a place I might arrive rather than the place I start from.

In 2011, news organizations will finally start to realize that they need to be in the business of serving the consumer’s information needs, not just producing content, and any tool that allows them to serve those needs is fair game. There’s no getting around the fact that integrated products are beloved by users; this is part of the appeal of Google’s and Apple’s offerings. And being loved by users is essential, regardless of whether your revenue strategy is advertising, subscriptions, or philanthropy.

This is also about being multi-platform. One of the great things about Facebook is that I can access it fluidly on any device; Facebook isn’t a website, it’s a product. So far, no news organization really offers a seamless experience across platforms. Several are aiming for it, CNN is pretty good at it, and the Huffington Post and The New York Times are not far behind. But I suspect that the industry will slowly discover that multi-platform will not be enough to compete with multi-platform and multi-source. I expect to eventually to see much more incorporation of search and social content, and many more syndication deals.

This is a discussion that I expect will enter into the mainstream of the journalism business by the year’s end. But I don’t think the news industry will release any truly competitive integrated products in 2011. Flipboard and other startups will pick up most of that slack, and it will be a few more years before most news organizations complete the organizational and philosophical changes they need to compete successfully.

December 13 2010

15:00

What will 2011 bring for journalism? Clay Shirky predicts widespread disruptions for syndication

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we at the Lab decided to ask some of the smartest people we know what they thought 2011 would bring for journalism. We’re very pleased that so many of them agreed to share their predictions with us.

Over the next few days, you’ll hear from Steve Brill, Vivian Schiller, Michael Schudson, Markos Moulitsas, Kevin Kelly, Geneva Overholser, Adrian Holovaty, Jakob Nielsen, Evan Smith, Megan McCarthy, David Fanning, Matt Thompson, Bob Garfield, Matt Haughey, and more.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

To start off our package of predictions, here’s Clay Shirky. Happy holidays.

The old news business model has had a series of shocks in the 15 or so years we’ve had a broadly adopted public web. The first was the loss of geographic limits to competition (every outlet could reach any reader, listener or viewer). Next was the loss of progressive layers of advertising revenue (the rise of Monster and craigslist et alia, as well as the “analog dollars to digital dimes” problem). Then there is the inability to charge readers easily without eviscerating the advertising rate-base (the failure of micropayments and paywalls as general-purpose solutions).

Next up for widespread disruption, I think, is syndication, a key part of the economic structure of the news business since the founding of Havas in the early 19th century. As with so many parts of a news system based on industrial economics, that model is now under pressure.

As Jonathan Stray pointed out in “The Google/China Hacking Case” and Nick Carr pointed out in “Google in the Middle,” the numerator of organizations producing original news is tiny — absolutely tiny — compared to the denominator of those re-publishing that news. Stray notes that only 7 of the 121 outlets running the China story were based mainly on original reporting, while the vast majority was just wire service copy. Carr similarly pointed out that Google news showed 11,264 separate outlets for the Somali pirate story in 2009, almost all of them re-running the same couple of stories. (I was similarly surprised, last year, to discover that syndicated content outweighed locally created content in my old hometown paper by a 2:1 margin.)

The idea that syndication should be different in a digital era has been around for a while now. Jeff Jarvis’s formulation — “Do what you do best and link to the rest” — dates from 2007, and the AP started talking about about holding back some stories from subscribers in order to drive their PageRank up last year. What could make 2011 the year of general restructuring is Google’s attempt to give credit where credit is due, in the words of their blog post, by offering tags that identify original and preferred sources for syndicated stories.

This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

Giving credit where credit is due will reward original work, whether scoops, hot news, or unique analysis or perspective. This will be great for readers. It may not, however, be so great for newspapers, or at least not for their revenues, because most of what shows up in a newspaper isn’t original or unique. It’s the first four grafs of something ripped off the wire and lightly re-written, a process repeated countless times a day with no new value being added to the story.

Taken to its logical conclusion, giving credit where credit is due will mean things like 11,260 or so outlets getting out of the business or re-running the same three versions of the Somali pirate story. If Reuters has the best version, why shouldn’t people just read it from Reuters?

Like other forces brought to bear by the web, there’s no getting around this one — rewards for originality are what we want, not just as consumers but as citizens — but creating an environment that generates those rewards will also mean dismantling the syndication model we’ve had since Havas first set up shop.

November 22 2010

15:00

With its new food blog, WordPress gets into the content-curation game

This month, the company associated with one of the world’s most popular blogging platforms took its first, quiet step into the realm of for-profit content aggregation. FoodPress, a human-curated recipe blog, is a collaboration between blogging giant WordPress.com and Federated Media, a company that provides advertising to blogs and also brokers more sophisticated sponsorship deals. Lindt chocolate is already advertising on the site.

“We have a huge pool of really motivated and awesome food bloggers,” explained Joy Victory, WordPress’ editorial czar. (Yes, that is, delightfully, her official title.) Food was a natural starting place for a content vertical.

If the FoodPress model takes off, it could be the beginning of a series of WordPress content verticals covering different topics. WordPress.com currently hosts more than 15.1 million blogs, and when the FoodPress launch was announced, excited WordPress commenters were already asking for additional themed pages on subjects like art, restaurants, and beer.

(To clarify the sometimes confusing nomenclature: WordPress the blogging software — sometimes called WordPress.org — is free, open source, and installed on your own web server; we use it under the hood here at the Lab. WordPress.com is a for-profit venture offering a hosted version of WordPress software, owned by Automattic, which was founded by WordPress developer Matt Mullenweg. FoodPress is a WordPress.com project.)

For now, though, FoodPress’ creators are keeping their focus on their first blog and seeing what kind of traffic and advertising interest it attracts — the start-small-then-scale approach. And one question that remains to be answered in this first experimental effort is how WordPress bloggers will respond to the monetization of their content, and whether featured bloggers will want compensation beyond the additional traffic they’re likely to receive.

So far, the response from users has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, Victory said. While the familiar issue of blogger compensation has been raised in response to the new venture, “our users don’t seem concerned so far,” she said. Instead, they’re largely excited about the possibility of even more themed sites. Advertising is already a part of WordPress.com, Victory pointed out, popping up on individual WordPress blogs unless a user is signed into WordPress itself.

WordPress’ venture into the editorial realm is significant on its own merits, but it also provides a fascinating case study in how media jobs have proliferated even as the news industry suffers. Victory used to work for metro newspapers, as did Federated Media’s Neil Chase. Now the two are working on a project that brings atomized pieces of user-created content together as a singular web publication. (FoodPress’ tagline: “Serving up the hottest dishes on WordPress.com.”)

Victory is optimistic about this “new way of looking at journalism” — even though, she said, “I consider myself someone who has left traditional journalism behind.” But while some of the FoodPress content is aggregated automatically, Victory believes as well in the value of human curation in creating a good user experience — a sentiment shared among many in the burgeoning ranks of web curators. (Up to now, WordPress’ content curation has focused mainly on Freshly Pressed, a collection of featured blog posts on the site’s homepage, which Victory hand-selects daily.) And to bring more editorial oversight to FoodPress, Federated Media turned to one of its affiliated bloggers, Jane Maynard, to oversee the project — a paid, part-time position.

The blog won’t be just an experiment in curation, though; it will also be a case study in collaboration. “It’s the first step in what we think will be a critical partnership,” Chase noted — one that emerged organically from the collaboration-minded, conversational world of San Francisco-based startups. And just as Federated Media and Automattic have shared the duties of creating the site, he said, they will also share the revenue FoodPress generates.

As for the expectations for that revenue? Victory isn’t releasing traffic stats for FoodPress at this point — both she and Chase were hesitant to talk too much about a project still in beta testing — but noted that the site’s social media presence is growing, with, as of this posting, more than 1,400 Facebook “Likes” and 1,200 Twitter followers. The rest will, like a recipe itself, develop over time. “This is a little bit of an experiment for us,” Victory said. “And we’re hoping it’s wildly successful.”

November 18 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of news anywhere

[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.]

Facebook isn’t trying to replace Gmail or Yahoo Mail — it’s just trying to bring a little order to our world, right? This week’s Facebook Messages announcement is stunningly simple, and in line with the next phase of the web, both overall and for news.

Take MSNBC’s description of Facebook Messages:

Instead of dealing with the dilemma of reaching people via e-mail or direct message or SMS, all of these will be combined, so that you’ll be able to reach someone the way they prefer to be reached, without you having to think about it. ‘All you need is a person and a message,’ said Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering for Facebook.

That’s the next web (r)evolution in a nutshell. It’s a unified theory of messaging. And it can be easily extended into the unified theories of TV, movies, shopping — and news.

Make a few substitutions, and you’ve got “All you need is a person and a movie,” or “All you need is a person and a shopping list” or “All you need is a person and the news.” For news creators, and aggregators, it’s a big thought that will be play out more dramatically in the tablet-inflected world of 2011. Only those who grok its meaning and execute properly may make digital reader revenue a reality.

In short, it’s about simplification, about interconnection, about consolidation, and it’s a principle that is beginning to — and should — form the foundation of the much of the next-generation thinking about the news business.

Though we’ll continue to see a panorama of new digital services and products, much of the early digital vision has been built out. We may live in a find-anything-anytime-anywhere world, but it’s also a digital fumbleathon, as we bounce from mobile apps of three distinct platforms, mail and preference settings, interminable demands for passwords, multiple hard-to-combine “friend” and contact lists, Twitter decks, Facebook walls, RSS feeds, preference popups, security hiccups — not to mention TV remotes and cable guides that seem like visitors from a distant analog planet.

Facebook Messages says: We get it. We’ll make it easier for you to keep in touch with those you want to stay in touch with. We’ll see how well Facebook delivers on that promise, but it’s the right one for our age. We can see its echoes multiplying.

On Wednesday, HBO announced that its HBO Go initiative will make HBO available through digital devices for its cable channels subscribers by year’s end. That initiative is part of parent Time Warner’s TV Everywhere push, which likewise says: You paid us once. Now get what you paid for wherever you want it. It’s the unification of the premium TV business, as cable companies are starting to see unprecedented churn, given piecemeal availability of programming through the Internet, legally or illegally.

Comcast is making a similar promise, as it newly announced app promises to connect up its customers’ experience. The app’s functionality is rolling out over time, but will ultimately allow viewing of all Comcast’s Xfinity content via devices, plus provide programming services, such as remote DVR taping, and let an iPhone replace that dreaded remote — borrowing a little bit from Tivo, a little bit from Sonos.

Netflix, of course, grasped the concept earlier, as CEO Reed Hastings has noted (“Six Lessons for the News Industry from Reed Hastings“): “We knew that the DVD business was temporary when we founded the company. That’s why we named it Netflix and not DVD by mail. We wanted to become Netflix.” Netflix’s current promise: “Unlimited TV.” You guessed it: one relationship with the brand, and you get what you paid for however you want it.

Where are the news promises? Well, the first generation has been Yahoo News. Remember your first time seeing all those wondrous headline links from the BBC, the Post, the Hindu, and CNET all in one place? First-generation aggregation was cool, but we haven’t really progressed much beyond it, though we’ve seen nuances, with personality added to aggregation (HuffPo) and some regional aggregation (Seattle Times, TBD.com). We’ve seen some good smartphone apps and a few new iPad apps. Come 2011, we’ll begin to see more News Everywhere experiences.

The first big one in the U.S. should be The New York Times. The Times will launch its metered pay system early in the year. If tech issues can be solved, expect paying customers to get access — aiming toward seamless, but likely with a few wrinkles — across devices, an intending-to-be-unified reader experience. The Times’ Martin Nisenholtz explained recently: “It’s not just about the website anymore. It’s about all of the brands where you can read the Times…it’s about the website, smartphones, the slates, iPad…it’s a hugely different world than it was five years ago.” So, the Times will say give us a single price, and we’ll let you read about you want of the Times where you want, recognizing you across digital experiences and — nirvana — allowing you to keep track of what you’ve shared and read, and with whom, without you having to recall whether you sent that story to your best buddy on your iPhone.

I’ve called that approach All-Access, and I think it’s the news industry version of TV Everywhere. So far, the best example of all-access pricing is the Financial Times, upon whose experience the Times’ model is built. Its “newspaper + online” top-of-the-line subscription allows full digital access plus the paper for one price.

The Everywhere notions seem friendly — and they have to be consumer friendly to be successful — but they’re actually quite darwinian. How many entertainment and news brands will we pay for? Only a handful, probably, especially at premium rates. So in the news business, that battle means only a few brands win the reader revenue sweepstakes, unless a Hulu-for-news proposition (AP’s digital rights clearinghouse expanded; a second life for Rupert Murdoch’s Alesia?) succeeds big-time.

To win, news companies will have work on the principle of the Field Theory. No, not the unified field theory, though unification of message and of service is fundamental. It’s the Sally Field Theory, which you remember the 1984 Oscars speech: “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect…I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Well who wants renewed respect than newsies? Who keeps talking about the trusted brand relationship that newspapers have long had with readers?

If news companies want to “own” the news customer (and be able to mine his data deeply), then they, large or small, newly minted or history-encrusted, have to bring their games to a new level. For the Times (or the Journal), the current breadth of content may be sufficient, if the execution manages to bring a little delight of ubiquity to paying subscribers.

For local news companies, the bar is probably a different one. Yes, they’ll have to put their tech development in high gear (many are woefully behind on tablet apps, just as the devices explode under this year’s Christmas trees), but they’ll also have to up their local value proposition. That means not just repurposing their own staff’s local news output, but really reaching out to community blog aggregation, broadcast partnership, working Yelp-like guide magic (probably through partnership) and/or creating a new level of digitally enhanced local shopping experiences. It’s unclear how much limited local news across devices is worth to news consumers.

News Anywhere, or unified news, or All-Access, whatever we want to call it, demands the singular focus, product development and messaging that Netflix, HBO, Comcast, and Facebook are bringing to it. Those are all skills that have been problematic in the news industry. Yet, here we are, in a new age, in a mobile news age about to unfold, giving the journalism, and journalists, another chance to get it right.

November 12 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

November 09 2010

17:00

Meet Intersect, where storytelling, time, and location get all mashed up

It’s near impossible to tell a story that doesn’t have a place or a time. As readers and just as humans we have a difficult time connecting with a story — be it a friendly anecdote or a news article — that doesn’t tell us where it happened and when. As writing and storytelling has evolved online those two components have largely been relegated to the background — no less important of course, but often useful as metadata, a tag or pin on a map.

Intersect is trying to bring that information to the forefront of storytelling and wants people to build around what happens to them at fixed points in time and space. Part blogging tool, part social network, Intersect lets users tell stories as they are pegged to a certain time and place in a way that would eventually create a timeline for each user. But pulling back wider, Intersect will allow communities to share a more complete narrative of certain events.

An example? How about The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive in Washington D.C. The Washington Post partnered with Intersect to tell stories from the event, both from attendees but also reporters:

The Story Lab team will be filing stories throughout Saturday’s events on the Mall via Intersect, a new site designed to collect and present stories live and from the scene. Here on washingtonpost.com and on Intersect’s site, we’ll be documenting the scene and asking those in attendance and those watching at home to weigh in on the politics vs. entertainment question. Please join us.

Let’s consider how this would work without Intersect: Anyone covering the event would hope for a universally accepted hashtag on Twitter, curate the best Tweets from the day, search for any photos on Flickr, and maybe, if they’re crafty, create a Google Map that pins Tweets and photos to locations on the National Mall.

Instead, with Intersect, any user can go in and automatically enter the time and location and proceed to write updates and post photos. (Like, say, the President get a donut while campaigning in Seattle.) But in order for Intersect to work they’ll need to answer two big questions: how to attract an audience to populate intersections, and how to introduce a new routine to users (i.e. get them to write about Intersections as much as they tweet or post to Facebook).

The Post partnership — an example of one potential route to an audience — was promoted online by the Post and Intersect, garnered its share of Twitter buzz and made a splash at the Online News Association conference, all of which seemed to generate interest in using the service on Rally day. Looking over Intersect there are more than 40 stories connected to the rally and the National Mall, each offering a different vantage point, the kinds reporters covering these type of events typically like to seek out.

Post reporters using a beta version of an Intersect iPhone app posted stories and photos that were fed to WashingtonPost.com and Intersect’s site, where they were side by side with updates from other users.

Since the content from the Rally was shared on both sites, Intersect demonstrated its value as both a platform for stories and a tool for crafting them. That may be key to any future success for Intersect, since they’ll need high visibility and a combination of big events and big partners willing to experiment.

Though Intersect is not expressly a platform for journalism, it could be applied to news gathering, as evidenced by the Post’s partnership. Intersect could allow journalists to either tap into an existing community to see what background they can provide for a story, or be used to invite others to tell a story. Guzman gives the example of Seattle’s Space Needle, which celebrates 50 years in 2012. A journalist could begin a story on Intersect about the needle and ask readers to fill in the history of the landmark over the last 50 years.

“It’s this idea of you can actually tell your whole story, go all the way back, see how you’ve changed,” Intersect’s director of editorial outreach Monica Guzman told me. “That’s kind of cool.” Guzman used to work at SeattlePI.com, where she ran its main blog.

Another reason Intersect could be valuable to journalists is that it’s a system set up to provide context in stories. “I think it’s absolutely critical. A lot of new media journalists are seeing that need to bring context back into journalism,” she said.

Intersect does have a social network meets real-world feel to it, as members have a presence online, but one tied to specific places. Instead of simply building online “community,” Intersect could also serve as a means of growing a physical community and connecting people around certain localities, like the story of the change in a neighborhood as told by the people who live there, Guzman said.

If the launch of services like Storify and Intersect tell us anything, it’s that aggregation and collaboration in storytelling may be reaching a new plateau, one where there is a symbiotic relationship between the technology and the craft behind how we share stories.

Guzman sees Intersect as part of the broader change in news, the transition from journalists as the sole keepers of news and information to journalists finding ways to collaborate and reach out to readers. “I learned through the Big Blog just how much news is becoming a conversation,” she said. “It’s about bringing out new voices and perspectives.”

November 08 2010

17:00

Energy-efficient journalism, urban planning for news

I came across a great story in The Economist last night — a look at emerging systems of urbanism, part of the magazine’s “Special Report on Smart Systems.” In cities large and small, eastern and western, established and nascent, planners are attempting to bring some of the systematized logic of the world of digital design — strategic centralization coupled with strategic individualization — to bear on the urban landscape.

Take PlanIT Valley, an area just outside Porto, Portugal — which, borrowing the “service-oriented architecture” concept from the design world, is attempting to build itself into “the world’s smartest city.”

Much of the city, which is to cost about $10 billion, will rely on prefabricated parts; its foundation, for instance, will be made of concrete blocks that come with all the gear for smart infrastructures pre-installed. Eventually the entire city and its buildings will be run by an “urban operating system” that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy.

It’s a neat idea, for informational infrastructure as much as architectural: an urban operating system. Energy-efficient, generally efficient. An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.

We often talk about news as a collective endeavor, as an “ecosystem.” (In fact, if you’re in NYC tomorrow evening, in fact, you can attend Columbia’s 2010 installment of its “Changing Media Landscape” panel, an event whose title is as apparently unironic as it is permanent.) Culturally, though, and viscerally, we tend to understand journalism as a fundamentally individualistic enterprise: A world of beats and brands, of information that is bought and sold — an epistemology built upon ownership. And we tend to see ourselves within that structure as a system only in the broadest sense: small pieces, loosely joined. Very loosely. Individual news organizations — among them, increasingly, actual individuals — decide for ourselves the scope of our coverage, the way of our coverage, the details of our coverage. Because it is our coverage. While, sure, the market rewards niche-finding and, with it, comprehension — and while, sure, we’re certainly in conversation with other outlets as we go along — still, with notable exceptions, most of the discourse we have with our peers in newsgathering plays out via the calculation of competition. In general, we’re all Darwinists. Which is to say, we’re all capitalists — even when we’re not.

Ironically, though, the net result of that core individuality, for all the obvious good that comes from it, is often some form of redundancy. “Designs are often used only once, most buildings are not energy-efficient, the industry produces a lot of waste, and many materials are simply thrown away,” The Economist notes of industrial-age planning strategies, going on to cite a Harvard Business School case study finding that the waste in question accounts for a whopping 30 percent of construction costs. The architectural impulse toward ownership — in this case, the idea that urban spaces’ constituent structures should be singular rather than systematized — is both a means to beauty and artistry…and an inefficiency that’s quite literally built into the system of production.

A similar thing happens in news: In attempting to apply the aesthetic of individualism to a pragmatic public good, to put our stamp on it in a craftsmens’ guild kind of way, we often produce work that is unintentionally, but necessarily, wasteful — because it is unintentionally, but necessarily, duplicative. (Forty reporters covering a single press conference; 2,000 covering the Chilean miners’ rescue, etc.) Just as there are only so many ways to design an office building, or a parking structure, or a green space, there are only so many ways to structure a single news story. But structure that story we do, each of us outlets, because our individual missions are just that: individual. So we repeat ourselves. Repeatedly. And we resign ourselves to the repetition. (Google “Obama + coconuts” today and you’ll get over 2 million hits. Make of that what you will.) And then, because we need some way to control the crowded content of our own creation, we rely on external engineers — Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News — to impose order on the chaos. The coders become the curators become the arbiters. The news, as a civic space, ends up outsourcing the design of its own traffic flow.

Which may be fine. The whole point of a system, after all, is to overcome fragmentation with collaboration — which is exactly what we’re seeing play out, organically, in our news ecosystem. But what if, at the same time, we were more intentionally systematic about the news we produce? What if we applied the operating-system logic to journalism? While there’s certainly a systemic role for redundancy — duplication in journalism provides a crucial check against error, exaggeration, and the like (and, of course, it’s in nobody’s interest to develop the first one to come over the over-centralized oversight of news) — there’s something to be said, I think, for being more broadly collaborative in our thinking when it comes to the news that we — we, the news system — serve up to consumers. (Who tend to care very little about the proprietary structures — the beats, the brands — that defines journalists’ work.) A do what you do best; link to the rest mentality writ large.

The model we saw on display in outlets’ recent collaborations with WikiLeaks could be instructive; a nice balance of competition and collaboration could be one way to bring an digital-design sensibility to the news. Collaboration is no longer the province of utopians and/or nerds; increasingly, it’s defining the systems that are, in turn, defining us. Just as architecture understands that empty space is its own form of structure, journalism increasingly appreciates that connection — links, relationships, permeable borders — is a kind of content unto itself. Openness is architecture.

In a post earlier this year, Josh advocated for the development of a New Urbanism for news, a system of information delivery that offers “a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume.” As abundance edges out scarcity as the defining factor of our news economy, we’ll increasingly need to think about news production as a dialectic between creativity and containment. And as a system that, for the good of its consumers, balances the benefits of competition with the complementary benefits of collaboration.

Image via peterlfrench, used under a Creative Commons license.

November 04 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[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.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

October 04 2010

14:00

John Walcott makes the switch to online, but wants to bring some traditional-media virtues with him

The whole newspapers vs. aggregators war of attrition doesn’t make much sense to John Walcott. As he sees it, newspapers have always been aggregators. So what’s the big deal?

“The New York Times motto, ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ minus a few words — ‘all the news we see fit to print’ — is aggregation,” Walcott told me.

That kind of thinking may explain why McClatchy’s D.C. bureau chief is saying goodbye to newspapers and hello to SmartBrief, which compiles daily news summaries across a variety of industries, usually in partnership with a major industry association. In his new role as SmartBrief’s chief content officer and editor-in-chief, Walcott brings 38 years of experience at newspapers to a company that produces an online-only product. (We should note it’s also a company that has had Walcott on it’s advisory board for several years.)

Walcott says he sees little difference between the worlds of the daily newspaper and SmartBrief. The goal with both, is providing readers with “information that is timely and trustworthy to make their decisions.” What makes SmartBrief different is the way they approach that audience, through aggregation, curation, summaries, and links. Walcott says that could be a good model to emulate in the media business. “When you present a summary and a link you are offering readers a choice: Do I care enough to read about this?” he said. “That’s a pretty efficient way to gather information.”

Assembling those summaries takes what Walcott calls “intellectual rigor and honesty in deciding what are important stories.” It also demands a measure of trust from your audience, knowing that you’re going to provide reported, qualified information — in other words, a relationship not unlike the one readers have traditionally had with traditional media.

Walcott knows all about traditional media, having led Knight Ridder’s D.C. bureau before McClatchy’s purchase of the chain and previously having worked at Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. He won the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2008 (a prize administered here at Nieman) for McClatchy’s series investigating the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

Of course, SmartBrief’s collection of specifically targeted audiences isn’t the same as a D.C. bureau’s broad, general one. The company curates summaries of the day’s news in industries like accounting, finance, health care, non-profits and technology. The newsletters SmartBrief produces are free to subscribers, thanks to its deals with trade associations, nonprofits, and other industry groups.

As audiences fragment, Walcott thinks media companies would be wise to find ways to tailor what they are doing to specific groups and the ways they consumer information. It’s not just that people want news that’s targeted for them, but it’s also increasingly hard to find that right signal/noise ratio. That makes aggregation all the more powerful, he said. “The job of aggregation as I see it is to drive readers to the source of content,” he said. “If we’re doing our job right, people producing the best content will benefit from that.”

Despite an increasingly flow of traditional media figures into online outlets, Walcott said he struggled with the idea of leaving newspapers. But he says SmartBrief is taking an active role in figuring out a path to success in media. And that’s something he wants to be a part of.

“At the end of the day the thing I’m trying to do is bring the virtues that good journalism posses and marry them with the new ways people are getting and sharing information,” Walcott said.

September 28 2010

14:00

September 23 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of Apple’s “digital circulation” share

[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.]

So the newspaper business is now figuring out how to deal with a new middleman, Apple. The last decade has been about moaning and groaning about The Google, how it has become the mass medium, leaving newspapers in the niche, and how it has gotten the big share of digital ad revenue as an aggregator while news creators have gotten the short end of the hockey stick. The new decade looks like it’s bringing up a suite of similar questions, with Apple first in focus (and maybe Facebook coming next).

Just when newspaper companies thought they’d seen a big, new opportunity to establish strong new reader revenue lines on the tablet, their dreams have hit the pause button. Apple says it wants 30 percent of that emerging reader revenue — including ongoing digital subscription streams — telling publishers that they, like everyone else, have to go through the App Store to do the transaction, giving Apple its due cut. Publishers are now figuring outhow to respond, and as they do, let’s look, briefly, at four sets of numbers that tell us why this Apple/newspaper company tiff matters so much. Within those four sets, we can see the emerging newsonomics of tablet reader revenue.

  • Let’s start with a global number: $34 billion. That’s the amount of circulation revenue — almost all of it print-based — that newspaper companies around the world took in last year, according to research I do annually for Outsell. That number is about 34 percent of total newspaper company revenue, which came in at $99.8 billion. So if it is newspapers’ strategy to transition paying readers to digital devices, charging them along the way, some part of that $34 billion will move to tablets, ereaders, iPads, Streaks, and whatever the next generation of devices are called. If Apple snapped its fingers and transformed the print industry tomorrow, its 30-percent take would be $10.2 billion. That’s a fantastical number, of course: No fingers can be snapped, not all print readers will transition, pricing will change, and so on. But we can see globally how much money may be in play over time.
  • Let’s move to a real-life example, The Wall Street Journal’s $17.29 monthly iPad subscription rate. It’s reportedly sold well, though we don’t have good numbers on it. It’s the major standalone, separately priced news app, and that got it a lot of attention when it was announced. While we can debate the merits of standalone iPad pricing vs. bundling the price with print/web/smartphone access, the pricing itself is of interest. The Journal understands that some readers will abandon print for the iPad. When they do, the Journal doesn’t want to exchange print circulation dollars for iPad pennies. An annual iPad subscription costs $207.48. That compares to $249 for the print edition, although the Journal’s been doing a lot of heavy discounting of its flagship paper. The Journal’s iPad pricing, which itself can be discounted over time as print is, is intended to ease that circulation revenue transition. At $208 a year, Apple would presumably take $62. Overall, the Journal counts more than 2 million in circulation, with more than 400,000 of those online-only and Kindle subs. Pricing will change over time, but just take those 400,000. If they all wanted tablet access, that could amount to $24.8 million a year for Apple.
  • Let’s move on to the New York Times, the company that is going “paid” early next year, and has the best chance of any U.S. general (non-financial) newspaper to pull it off. For the first six months of the year, the Times itself (not the other newspapers the company owns) took in $346 million in circulation revenue. Currently, its web content is free. Let’s say that it prices in a similar fashion to the Journal, keeping about the same amount of revenue as it goes digital and that 10 percent of its sales are on an Apple tablet a couple of years from now. That would mean about $35 million in iPad circulation revenue for a half a year, or $70 million for a full year. Apple’s take of that: $21 million.
  • Finally, let’s look at Apple and the music industry. Today, Apple’s iTunes pulls in about 28 percent of all music sales in the U.S., or seven-tenths of the total 40 percent of U.S. music sales that are now digital. It took Apple seven years to get there, from a dead start. Of course, the music and news businesses are completely different, right? We can name the differences, but let’s concentrate on the main thing they have in common: Many consumers love digital delivery. So that migration — from analog medium (CD, newspaper) to a suitable, finally-it’s-arrived digital device (iPod, iPhone, tablet) — may be another guide that’s useful.

Those 40 percent (of total U.S. music sales) and 28 percent (Apple’s share of overall music sales) numbers are ones to note. If they held true for news reading, then by 2017, we can be assured of one thing: Apple’s share of news “circulation” revenue would be mind-bending.

September 20 2010

09:58

September 08 2010

14:30

August 19 2010

09:26
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