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August 25 2012

23:49

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.

August 24 2012

20:44

Without mediation

The shooting near the Empire State Building today demonstrated in yet more ways how news will arrive without mediation.

On Twitter, some objected to my linking to photos from the scene taken by witnesses immediately after the crime, without warning of their graphic nature. The murder victim lay in his blood, so bright red that someone else on Twitter wondered whether the image had been doctored. No, we’re simply not accustomed to seeing so much blood so fresh. We have waited until news photographers arrived, until after the bodies have been taken away, replaced by chalk outlines behind yellow ribbons with only dried, brown-red stains remaining. We are used to seeing the sometimes ugly world packaged and sanitized for our protection by media.

So it’s doubly shocking, perhaps, when media now shows such images from those witnesses.

Jim Romenesko asked The Times about running that photo on its home page, albeit briefly, and they gave what I’d call a right answer: “It is an extremely graphic image and we understand why many people found it jarring. Our editorial judgment is that it is a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”

I say it is a good thing that we see a more unvarnished world. Perhaps then we’ll have a real debate about guns the way we were forced to face Vietnam through scenes of death on the evening news, as some of my defenders on Twitter pointed out. “Death by gunshot is graphic. Now uncontainable,” said the Guardian’s Charles Arthur (though the Guardian tried to contain it)

I also say that in any case, we’d best get used to it, for as we all well know, news and images of it won’t come from reporters and credentialed photographers first and won’t be filtered through media before it comes to us. It is coming from witnesses who go by names like @yoassman [the name and a Seinfeld tribute, no doubt] and Mr. Mookie, who may write indelicate comments like, “They shoot, aw made you look. No really tho. Dude got popped!” and “Why yall keep saying it could be someone I know? I don’t have anymore room for RIP tatts on my arm. I’ve seen my friends with they heads blown off in the street. Yea it happens to me too and I get over it. Its life.”

Yeah, welcome to life. Most such life isn’t reported with such a splash because it doesn’t happen in such a public place. It happens in the Bronx or 19 times in a weekend in Chicago.

I think we’ve become much too accustomed to mediated news, to a world sanitized for our protection. That’s what makes people ask for warnings before being shown reality, even if the discussion is about murder, and even if they had to click on a link to see what I was writing about. They had to be curious enough to do that. But they weren’t curious enough to see news as it really happened. The image didn’t come into their homes on a TV screen with kids on the couch. It came through my Twitter feed. It was insensitive of me to link to it without warning, I was told. No, I think the problem is that media have made us insensitive — desensitized would be the cliché — to such a fact.

Don’t tell me you’re offended by murder. If you weren’t, that would be the problem. Of course, you are. So don’t tell me not to offend you with what it looks like once you click. And don’t tell me what to say and what not to say.

A man was killed in New York this morning. Now we know better what that looks like. That is news.

:Later: On the Media tells the story of that photo on The Times homepage. And here’s Poynter on the photo.

August 17 2012

17:03

August 15 2012

16:12

Mobile’s not the next big thing, just a path to it

The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge just announced its next theme: mobile. And that’s a good thing because news organizations have been all-too pokey in figuring out how to serve people in this venue.

When Arthur Sulzberger announced his hiring of a new CEO, the BBC’s Mark Thompson, he said, “Our future is on to video, to social, to mobile.”

With respect, I’m not so sure. Saying that mobile is what comes next means, I fear, that we’re going to take what we do in media — making content, selling audiences — and figure out how to keep doing it on video, in social, and in mobile.

But that’s not what we really do.

Is Google just doing mobile next? Google has a mobile operating system. It has a Google-branded phone and tablet. It bought a phone manufacturer. It made apps for all its services for mobile. Even so, I don’t think Google is becoming a mobile company. For Google, mobile is a tool, a path to improve its real business.

What is its real business? The same as media’s business should be: Relationships — knowing people and serving them better because of what it knows about them.

With newspaper companies, I’ve been arguing that they should abandon page views as a metric because it has been a corrupting influence that carried on the old-media myth that the more “audience” you have the more you can charge advertisers and the more money you’ll make. The pursuit of page views has led news organizations to draw traffic — people — they cannot monetize (because they come from outside the market or come just once from search or Drudge). And the insistence that they remain in the content business has led news organizations to believe they must still sell that content; thus, pay walls.

Google views content — our content — as a tool that generates signals about their users, building relationships, data, and value. Google views mobile as a tool that also generates signals and provides opportunities to target content and services to the individual, where she is, and what she’s doing now (thus Android’s Google Now).

We in news and media should bring those strands together to knit a mobile strategy around learning about people and serving them better as a result — not just serving content on smaller screens. Mobile=local=me now. We should build a strategy on people over content, on relationships.

That’s what mobile means to me: a path to get us to the real value in our business. For you folks cooking up ideas for the Knight News Challenge (and for you, my new neighbor, Mr. Thompson) I suggest starting there.

August 02 2012

13:34

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

July 29 2012

17:01

#nbcfail economics

Reading the #nbcfail hashtag has been at least as entertaining as much of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. It’s also enlightening — economically enlightening.

There’s the obvious:
* The people formerly known as the audience have a voice and boy are they using it to complain about NBC’s tape delays of races and the opening ceremonies, about its tasteless decision to block the UK tribute to its 7/7 victims, and about its commentators’ idiocies (led by Meredith Vieira’s ignorance of the inventor of the web; they could have used their extra three hours to enlighten her).
* Twitter is a gigantic spoiler machine. It would be nearly impossible to isolate oneself from news of results because even if you don’t read Twitter or Facebook or go to the net, someone you know, someone you run into will. Information can’t be controlled. Amen.
* We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible.
Those arguments have all been made well and wittily on #nbcfail.

The counterargument has been an economic one: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for the rights to broadcast, billions that pay for the stadiums and security and ceremony. The argument is also made that NBC’s strategy is working because it is getting record ratings.

But there’s no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing. Indeed, with spoilers everywhere, viewing is up. I can easily imagine people watching the Phelps defeat live tweeting their heads off telling friends to watch it in prime time. I can imagine people thanking NBC for curating the best of the day at night and giving folks a chance to watch the highlights. I tweeted: “I’m waiting for NBC to take credit for idea Twitter helps build buzz & ratings for tape-delayed events.” (Which led Piers Morgan’s producer, Jonathan Wald, to take joking credit and then the executive producer of the NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, to offer it. To his credit, Bell has engaged with at least one tweeted suggestion.)

If NBC superserved its viewers, the fans, wouldn’t that be strategy for maximum audience? The BBC is superserving its viewers. I went to TunnelBear so I could sample what the BBC is offering on the air and in its iPlayer — which, of course, we can’t use in the U.S. — and it’s awesome. But, of course, the BBC is supported by its viewers’ fees. So the argument is that the BBC serves viewers because they’re the boss while NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bills.

I still don’t buy it. I don’t want to buy it, for that pushes media companies to put all they do behind walls, to make us pay for what we want. I still see a future for advertising support and free content. I still believe that if NBC gave the fans what they wanted rather than trying to make them do what NBC thinks it wants, NBC could win by growing audience and engagement and thus better serving sponsors. I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights. It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality. To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter.

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

The bottom line for Olympics fans is that, as Bill Gross pointed out, much of the blame for what we’re seeing — and not seeing — falls to the IOC and the overblown economics of the games. There is the root of greed that leads to brand police who violate free speech rights in the UK by chilling use of the innocent words “2012″ and “games”, and tape delays, and branded athletes. This is the spirit of the Olympics Games? It is now.

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