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May 29 2013

14:00

Scott Lewis: Learning from social platforms to build a better news site

About four years ago, I nervously sat on a roundtable between Madeline Albright and Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation. Next to Ibarguen was Marissa Mayer, then an executive at Google. She was co-chair of a commission Knight put together to study the information needs of communities at the height of what seemed like a crisis for news and civics.

During the discussion, Mayer described her vision of a hyper-personalized news stream. News publishers, she said, needed to learn from what social media and YouTube were doing. Here’s how a writeup of the gathering later paraphrased her remarks about a new type of news publishing:

Users could get a constant stream of content based on their interests, on what is good for them or on the popular ethos. They could also introduce serendipity. These streams could be available by subscription. They could also involve hyper-personalized, well-targeted advertising that would be engaging.

While Mayer spoke, Ibarguen leaned over to me. He quietly said I should do that on the Voice of San Diego’s website. He would help if I gave it a go.

And that’s when I got the old same feeling I’ve gotten for years: dread. Once again, I would have to reveal how truly far behind on technology we were. We were almost imposters. Counterparts and leaders in our industry across the nation had called Voice of San Diego digital pioneers. Yet we knew next to nothing about technology and had put a paltry amount of resources into it.

Four years later, Mayer runs Yahoo and now Tumblr. I’d like to think she is heading furiously toward her vision of a hyper-personalized news and content experience. I’d like to think I finally am, too. I just couldn’t afford Tumblr. Or anything.

A mission to educate

Because of how Voice of San Diego started and how we’ve grown, we’ve never built up the kind of capital to make a major investment in technology. If we added resources, it was always writers. Then, the focus was on sustainability, and diversifying the money coming in to make the organization stronger and, frankly, to make payroll.

In fact, resource strain has defined us, and in some ways has been an asset. To do cool things, we needed partners. We created innovative relationships that became national standards. Our paucity obligated us to focus. A focused reporting staff distinguished Voice of San Diego for its investigative work.

Thrift, however, also pushed us to use an affordable content management system to run our website. It was Blox, the main product of the well-run, customer service-oriented TownNews.com in Moline, Ill.

I love TownNews.com. Without TownNews.com, we would not have achieved anything we did. The team there truly made the barrier to entry low and we turned the opportunity it provided us into a local institution. But we were only one of a couple of web-native clients for TownNews.com, which mainly services many hundreds of newspapers. Those newspaper publishers are still focused on one primary mission for their websites: Display daily posts and sell advertising next to them.

That’s not Voice of San Diego’s mission. Our mission is to help people get information. It is an educational mission. That’s why we have the nonprofit status we do.

If your job is to help people get educated, you can’t just display stories. Imagine a university that simply invited students into a room with huge posters and pictures and expected them to find everything they needed. Everywhere I look, news sites remain committed to simply displaying their stories and images. At the same time, social sites keep working on how to serve users.

And we’re watching social media eat news sites’ lunch. We’re gawking at an act of bullying taking place right before our eyes. When newspapers write about Mayer’s dream of well-targeted, engaging advertising and her visions for Tumblr, do they realize that’s money newspapers are not going to get?

Falling short

We’ve fallen many years behind social media platforms in serving users. Some news publishers have ceded the ground completely. They let Facebook run their social layer or rely on YouTube for their video sharing.

I’ve been watching this develop for years. Two years ago, I was positively despondent. I went so far as to dream that Facebook itself would create a content management system for news publishers. I’d be the first to sign up.

How far are we from actual Facebook or Tumblr-based news organization? Are you a news publisher? Ask yourself what your CMS does that Tumblr doesn’t. Mayer’s vision of a hyper-personalized news stream isn’t just something she thinks should happen. It is something that will happen. Are news organizations going to be a part of it?

If so, we have to stop working solely to display our content well and start working to serve our users well. Those are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

Let me rephrase: If we think our community is going to pay for our services (as many, including Voice of San Diego, The New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan do), then we absolutely have to learn how to serve users.

It doesn’t mean that we compete with social media platforms. That ship has sailed. But social is as much about a way of doing things as it is a technology. Social platforms, for instance, have taught us a few things that users now expect. Here are three:

  • You should expect to be notified if something you “follow” is updated.
  • Anyone should be allowed to submit content. It should be easy to do and its success is dependent on the community.
  • You should be able to relentlessly tailor your feed of information, bringing it closer and closer to what Mayer might call a “hyper-personalized” experience.

So you can see why I was despondent. I was nowhere near being able to be part of this. The best I could hope for was to continue displaying content. Then maybe I could master social media, somehow weaving it all together to serve our users and build a loyal, grateful community.

Making the switch

This is where I was last year when I met Kelly Abbott, who runs Realtidbits, a company that provides the commenting and social layer for sites like ESPN, Cleveland.com, the Irish Times and even Lady Gaga. Abbott went from not knowing about us to one of our most loyal readers and donating members. And then he decided he wanted to help more.

He recommended we switch content management systems. The thought made me nauseous. Anyone who knows CMS transitions knows why. But Abbott persisted. He had the same vision I did and he wanted to tackle it. Voice of San Diego was lucky enough to be a part of a great discussion in this country about the future of local news. We had an obligation to bring our technology up to speed.

Abbott created what he called an “engineer-free zone” for me. We would first solve basic website frustrations I had about mobile, search engine optimization, and commenting. But then we would dream. What would I create if I could?

I wanted to switch from an effort to display content well to one focused on serving users. Sure, our stories, photographs, and images needed to look good but my mission was to get people educated and to raise money to make the service stronger. A local foundation, Price Charities, came aboard to help us with the initiative. Then, we brought along another partner: Idea Melt, a company working to help publishers “imagine and thread beautiful, holistic, and engaging social experiences for your community.” And we chose to switch to WordPress.

Finally, last week we launched. Our stories and images look better. Our search engine indexing is much improved and our mobile experience is improved with a new responsive design. We also added three new features.

  • Notifications: Users can now follow storylines, or “narratives,” on the site. If there’s a new update, they don’t need to search for a section heading, they should see a notification.
  • Peer-to-peer and reader-to-author following: They can also follow individual writers, or even their peers.
  • The Plaza: Here, users can submit text, photos, links or video and their peers can vote on it to buoy it above other submissions. Yes, it’s a lot like Reddit.

All of these features need work and we’re moving furiously on a massive to-do list. But I look at everything with different eyes now. Soon, we’ll begin building our membership system into the site. Our 1,600 members will be able to check their status, learn about events they might want to attend, and get special alerts.

What we have is a new future. We can spend it constantly evolving to serve the community more in line with our mission and our business model.

We’re a long way from the vision Mayer described. But at least we started walking.

Scott Lewis is the CEO of Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or on Twitter at @vosdscott.

March 29 2013

20:13

Poll: What's the Future for Yahoo?

Yahoo has a long and storied history as a tech and media company, starting as a directory of websites, moving into being a portal, trying various advertising models, pushing more original content -- and then what? With brash CEO Marissa Mayer at the helm, Yahoo has made headlines, for sure, by banning work-at-home, and now purchasing news app Summly for $30 million with its 17-year-old CEO. Plus, Yahoo is considering buying video site Dailymotion from France Telecom and it might begin de-emphasizing original content. Are these the right moves for Yahoo? What do you see as its future? Is it bright, dark or middling? Vote in our poll below and share your thoughts in the comments. For a longer discussion of Yahoo's prospects, check out this week's Mediatwits podcast.


What's the future of Yahoo?

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 27 2012

14:04

This Week in Review: Reddit and news orgs’ shooting coverage, and Yahoo and Twitter’s identities

The Aurora shooting, Reddit, and citizen journalism’s value: Much of this week’s news has been related to last week’s shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater that killed 12 and injured dozens. Poynter tracked the spread of the news of the late-night shooting, and the site that got the most recognition for thorough reporting of the news as it broke was the social-news site Reddit. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon rounded up the range of coverage on Reddit, which included photos, comment threads with people who were in the theater, and comprehensive, continually updated timelines.

Those timelines drew particular attention from media observers: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber marveled at their empathy through thoroughness, and BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and NPR’s Elise Hu talked to the timelines’ author — an 18-year-old named Morgan Jones — with Herrman calling him “the go-to source in the story,” and Poynter’s Alan Stamm held him up as a model for aspiring journalists.

As The New York Times described, the site’s users also unearthed some details about the alleged shooter that the traditional news media missed. Adweek talked about Reddit’s reporting capabilities with the site’s general manager, Erik Martin, who said Reddit wasn’t designed to be a breaking-news source, but its users have used its tools for journalistic purposes anyway.

Several writers praised Reddit’s ability to cover breaking news collaboratively in such an effective way. Keith Wagstaff of Time wrote that “no news organization or social media site currently offers an experience that’s concurrently as immediate, engaging and thorough as the one offered by Reddit,” and in a pair of posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram remarked on Reddit’s ability to act as a verification hub and to allow readers to interact with people involved in news stories, and offered a defense of “citizen journalism” such as Reddit’s.

At Salon, Michael Barthel took issue with the praise for Reddit and citizen journalism, arguing that it isn’t immune from the same criticism the traditional media and that it’s “doing more or less the exact same thing that traditional journalism has always done, except not as reliably or sustainably.” J-prof Jay Rosen countered the piece with a Salon post of his own arguing that no one is saying citizen journalism will replace professional journalism.

Some traditional media organizations were also recognized for their skill in covering the story — the Denver Post’s Twitter coverage was run in part by its Digital First new curation team, and Digital First’s Steve Buttry drew tips for news organizations from the Post’s Twitter coverage, while Poynter looked at how the Post covered the news without a copy desk. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple also highlighted the coverage of Denver’s 9News TV.

How to cover tragedy carefully and sensibly: But traditional news organizations were also responsible for some serious missteps and some eyeroll-inducing coverage of the Aurora shooting, too. ABC News’ Brian Ross misidentified the shooter as a Tea Party member who had the same name, a mistake which Poynter’s Craig Silverman said the network made insufficient efforts to correct and apologize for.

Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review and Steve Myers of Poynter pinned the blame for Ross’ and similar errors on the practice of incremental or “process” reporting, in which news is reported, bit by bit, as it comes in, then later confirmed or corrected. Rieder said he doesn’t find the practice “a very confidence-inducing or satisfying approach to journalism,” and Myers described how disclaimers and corrections can be separated from initial reports on Twitter.

Beyond that specific error, coverage of the event and its aftermath followed a predictable path of sensational coverage and unfounded speculation. The New York Times’ David Carr lamented that pattern in shooting coverage, concluding that many of the problems stem from the news media’s desire to answer the question that can’t be answered: “Why?”

The Atlantic’s J.J. Gould urged media outlets and consumers to start shaming organizations that cover such events exploitatively, and numerous people circulated a 2009 video by the BBC’s Charlie Brooker that illustrated how to (and how not to) cover a mass shooting properly, which New Statesman compared to Britain’s newspapers. Jay Rosen, meanwhile, criticized the excitement that characterized so much of the coverage.

The ethics of quote approval and draft sharing: Following last week’s New York Times story on news organizations allowing candidates and their staffs to approve their quotes, more news orgs were establishing or reiterating their policies barring those practices this week, including Bloomberg, McClatchy, and National Journal. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple parsed through a few common quoting and negotiation practices, and the Journal’s Ron Fournier told him the key element differentiating what’s OK from what’s not is who has control.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post journalist caught some flak after the Texas Observer reported that he shared drafts of a story with University of Texas officials and allowed them to suggest edits that ended up in the story. Post editor Marcus Brauchli ultimately decreed that future draft-sharing would have to be approved by an editor.

In the ensuing discussion on draft sharing, the reporter had some defenders, including Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride in the Observer story. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon noted that the story contained quite a bit information that was unfavorable to the university, while the Post’s Erik Wemple defended the practice of draft sharing in general, saying that a refusal to do so affirms journalists’ arrogance. “It’s a convention built on the idea that journalists are so brilliant that they can get a complicated set of facts and circumstances dead-bang right on the first try without feedback from the people who know the topic best.”

What exactly is Yahoo?: A week after ex-Googler Marissa Mayer took over as Yahoo CEO, she’s begun to inspire confidence in the troops there, according to All Things D’s Kara Swisher, while Wired’s Steven Levy reported on the army of ex-Google managers Mayer could lure to Yahoo. The New York Times’ David Carr said the key question for Yahoo — as it has been for so many web companies before it — is, what is it, exactly? He concluded that Yahoo is (among other things) in the news business, but by accident more than anything.

Tim Carmody of The Verge said that question — especially whether it’s a media or tech company — could be shaped in part by where it moves most of its operations. He reported that Mayer may move many of Yahoo’s media execs to New York, making it a place where it could pursue both its media and tech sides. Ad Age’s Jason Del Rey and Michael Learmonth said Yahoo’s future is in creating more high-quality products, an area in which it hasn’t spent much money recently.

Twitter moves further toward media: We were also asking the “What is it?” question this week about another company: Twitter. The Wall Street Journal reported (paywalled) on Twitter’s plans to build out around big events, as Twitter announced the first of those partnerships — a hub for curating conversation about the Olympics with NBCUniversal. Meanwhile, Adweek reported that Twitter is in talks with Hollywood producers about launching original web shows a la “The Real World.”

In a series of posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote about Twitter’s move toward being a media outlet, saying that it doesn’t really need media outlets such as NBCUniversal to coordinate event-based coverage, that Twitter is moving toward an Apple- or Facebook-esque “walled garden” approach with regard to developers, and that producing ad-driven content like web shows gets away from Twitter’s core aims.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Nick Bilton asked whether Twitter is a media or tech company, concluding that it looks an awful lot like a media company. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen posed that Twitter is “a new kind of media company that doesn’t make any content.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias said the media/tech distinction isn’t a good one — the real distinction is between companies that sell a product and ones that sell an audience, and Twitter is quite clearly the latter.

Reading roundup: Here are the most interesting smaller stories going on this week:

— A couple of updates on the ongoing News Corp. saga: Rupert Murdoch resigned from the board of News International, his British newspaper division, and Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast explained why Murdoch is loosening his grip on his newspapers. Meanwhile, former News International head Rebekah Brooks was charged in the phone hacking scandal, and the Telegraph wondered if the charges could lead to a deeper U.S. investigation. The New York Times wrote about the case’s impact on British newspaper culture.

— A few WikiLeaks developments: A judge ruled that the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks are still secret, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that U.S. government officials are now talking about the possibility of prosecuting news organizations like The New York Times in addition to WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram urged journalists to support WikiLeaks’ First Amendment rights, and the Times’ Bill Keller followed suit.

— Barry Diller, whose IAC now owns most of the Newsweek/Daily Beast partnership, said in an earnings call that he might eliminate part or all of Newsweek’s print edition as soon as the end of this year. Newsweek editor Tina Brown tried to calm her staff down, and the New York Observer’s Foster Kamer detailed the now-ended Sidney Harman era at the magazine.

— The New York Times Co. released its second-quarter figures this week and posted a loss, thanks to declining digital ad sales, even as digital subscriptions for the Times and its Boston Globe are up. As New York magazine’s Joe Coscarelli put up, the Times is beginning to be supported by its readers more than its advertisers.

— Finally, a very thoughtful piece here at the Lab from Jonathan Stray, who suggested three principles by which to design personalized news experiences: interest, effects, and agency.

Photos of Aurora theater by Algr, quotation mark by Quinn Dombrowski, and Yahoo ice sculpture by Randy Stewart used under a Creative Commons license.

November 29 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of eight-percent reach

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

We’ll all familiar with the chaos of the moment. Publishers and broadcasters, readers and viewers, search giants and software midgets — they all see that we’re on the verge of the next news and information revolution, as the built-out Internet really begins to power human access to content on an array of digital devices, anytime, anywhere. But it’s not just the media dealing with that revolution. The same chaos of choice that alternatively delights and befuddles envelops businesses as well.

For old-fashioned sellers of newspaper space and broadcast time, it’s been a fitful education, and a reminder that merchants don’t want to buy advertising — they want to find customers, as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The First Amendment didn’t tie merchants to media in a constitutional permanence; it just seemed that way.

Marketing spend — email marketing, social media commerce, search engine marketing and optimization, building and operation of brands’ own websites, events and conferences, among others — is increasing worldwide, while “advertising” stagnates, and that’s due mainly to the increase in digital, increasingly measurable, marketing alternatives for businesses of all kind.

Yet, it’s also clear that we’re at the beginning of this digital marketing revolution, with two numbers convincing me we’re maybe not even a tenth of the way there. I’ll call that the Newsonomics of eight-percent reach, and explain those eight percent in a moment.

Consider first the big picture of marketing spend. Chuck Richard, a fellow information industry analyst at Outsell, has done work showing that marketing ad spend in the U.S. now totals $368 billion, of which 32.5 percent is going to digital and 30.3 percent to print.

It decreased at the rate of only 4.5 percent in the recession-wracked 2009, and should rise about 4.2 percent this year. Spending on advertising alone was down 8.5 percent in 2009 and is forecast to be down 0.8 percent in 2010.

So against those numbers, let’s look at a couple of numbers.

Google reaches about eight percent of the small businesses in the country, estimates Click Z’s Gregg Stewart. That’s 1.5-2 million businesses who use Google’s ad services, contributing to its $27 billion annual revenue run rate. As Stewart points out, Google advertising is a convenience for many harried smaller merchants:

Local businesses face a multitude of challenges daily; servicing customers, generating sales, meeting payroll, and in effect doing what they “do” for a living. Basically, they’ve got their hand in everything and this rarely allows for deep specialization in any one specific facet of their business. Local businesses do not have the time required to research keywords, monitor results, and modify bids and ad creative along with all the additional complexity that is associated with SEM.

Look at that eight percent another way, of course, and we see 92 percent upside, a big opportunity to help merchants make sense of the chaos. Google — along with Yahoo, Yelp, Yellow Pages companies, AOL, and Microsoft — have been plumbing this territory, and so have newspaper companies and a trio of hungry online marketing services companies.

Now Google is making a couple of aggressive moves. It has announced Boost. It’s a product that is built on top of its local listings and Google Maps. Boost — there’s an ironic ambiguity to the name, in that it is intended to boost Google’s revenue and boost some money out of the pockets of local media — adds the ability to put ratings and reviews in place-based ads, and they are sold on a pay-for-performance basis, unlike an earlier similar offering. The Boost test is going forward in more than a dozen cities.

Secondly, Marissa Mayer, Google’s long-time maestro of the search business, is now in charge of the local business. That’s another signal of what an opportunity Google sees in local business, online and on mobile.

How much of the local business market do you think metro newspapers reach? Eight percent, estimates Mike Sacks, VP for operations at Tribune. That’s a number, give or take a couple of points, I’ve heard from other publishers as well. While that total is likely higher for smaller-circulation dailies, its small size is a reflection of the old way of selling, pre-chaos.

Newspapers worked the biggest local merchants for big contracts, concentrating on getting a relatively small number of checks from a small number of deep-pockets advertisers. Now, those advertisers — the likes of Best Buy, Target, and Macy’s — are increasingly going direct to their customers and using all manner of social and engagement media to find and upsell customers (“The Newsonomics of online marketing“).

So, newspaper companies, including Gannett, Hearst, and Tribune, most prominently, are re-strategizing. If the dollars from that eight percent are only half what they were 10 years ago, then we’d better get some revenue from the other 92 percent, they’re saying. They’re doing that three main ways:

  • Retraining salesforces, and hiring more commissioned salespeople, to work the territories, selling not only space in their own papers and sites, but Yahoo inventory, Facebook placements, mobile messaging and more.
  • Telesales: Think “boiler room” lite; more salespeople calling more prospects.
  • Self-service: Sack’s Tribune is one of the companies using the Mediaspectrum platform to enable local merchants to place their own online or print ads. This Orlando Sentinel “Place an Ad” page shows what merchants can choose from. At the sister Sun-Sentinel, in Fort Lauderdale, Sacks says that more than a hundred new advertisers have been added in the year the service has been in place. “Every single cent is a new one…I’d like to see it grow ten-fold,” he says of the prospects of turning an experiment into a line of significant revenue. Sacks says average sized deals come in at about $1,000/$2,000 and also provide lead generation for upselling. Overall, Mediaspectrum’s self-service ad product is in place at almost 100 newspaper titles, including all of the Tribune’s papers (but not broadcast properties), UK’s Trinity Mirror chain, Morris Publications, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Washington Post. Most offer both online and print placements.

As we enter 2011, this new battle for local ad dollars is growing in strength, as merchants aim to make sense of the chaos of marketing choice. This exercise in chaos — and how sellers of marketing services do or don’t take advantage of it — affects more than just newspapers, of course. Locally, commercial broadcasters and Yellow Pages companies — the two other local media with substantial feet-on-the-street sales forces — are sensing the same opportunity to get to smaller businesses, as they, too, lose some of the bigger-business advertising they’ve long held.

Advertising agencies are in the midst of their own identity crises, as their value proposition to businesses is thrown into question, with the advances of pay-for-performance advertising and self-service overall.

The online-only players aren’t just the search giants. ReachLocal, Orange Soda, and Yodle are the companies you hear a lot about when you talk to local site general managers. They are all working the same turf, with ferocity. A recent visitor to the Yodle “sales pit” came away with the impression of “how well trained these guys are” and how their state-of-the-art customer relations management system qualified prospects well.

That 92-percent “open” market — maybe 23 million businesses — tells us how early we are in this digital marketing movement. Commerce change is one thing. For those who care about the news, the big thing to watch is whether those dollars, as they move digitally, move to companies that produce news, distribute news — or have nothing to do with news.

Photo by Leo Reynolds used under a Creative Commons license.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

November 05 2009

00:27

Google CEO Eric Schmidt envisions the news consumer of the future

For all the bluster about Google as an enemy of the news industry, you might be surprised to learn that Eric Schmidt, the company’s CEO, is kind of a triumphalist for mainstream media, big newspapers, and print.

He took questions from reporters this afternoon at Google’s offices in Cambridge, and I asked him, among other things, why Google News had recently begun attaching a “(blog)” label to some news sources — a move I criticized last month. Schmidt ended up bringing up bloggers’ moms:

Me: A very small question. Google News very recently added a label for blogs, to differentiate from non-blogs. It seemed weird in 2009 to make that distinction. I wondered, did you have any input on that or —?

Eric Schmidt: I was not directly involved in that. There seems to be a difference between blogs and traditional news. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish because many people in the traditional news are also bloggers.

Me: Or they use a blog platform.

Schmidt: Or they use a blog platform. So we’re trying to find that line. And it’s hard to articulate what that difference is.

Me: How would describe that line if it’s not based on the tech behind the publishing platform?

Schmidt: No, it’s not the technology. My guess is — again, I’m speculating, which is always a mistake — it has a lot to do with the infrastructure around the writer. So a blog that’s associated with a major, legitimate organization — of which, I think, the majority, if not everyone, in the room is associated with — would be, I think, treated differently than an individual blogger who’s using his or her right of free expression to say whatever he thinks. So the presence of an editor, as an example. You know, an editor that’s not your mom.

That is, for what it’s worth, not the distinction Google News is making: The “(blog)” label is supposed to be attached to any news published with blogging software. At the time, I thought Google might be throwing a bone to newspaper companies that don’t like being lumped with amateur news sources. And while I’m sure the new label was not important enough to reach Schmidt’s desk, his framing of that distinction — “the infrastructure around the writer” — is an interesting one.

I also asked Schmidt about the concept of a “hyperpersonalized news stream,” coined by Google VP Marissa Mayer to describe a customized flow of information from a broad range of news sources. Does Google have aspirations to build on that concept?

Schmidt: We have about ten news stream ideas, of which hyperpersonalization is one. And, again, I’d rather not talk about specific products or even prioritize them, but I would make the following observation: In five or ten years, what will the primary news reader look like?

Well, that person will be probably on a tablet or a mobile phone, probably the majority of the reading will presumably be online not offline, just because of the scale of it. It’ll be highly personalized, right? So you’ll know who the person is. There’ll be a lot of integration of media — so video, voice, what have you. It’ll be advertising-supported and subscription-supported, so you’ll probably have a mixture. Think of the Kindle as an example. The Kindle is a proto of what this thing could look like. People will carry these things around.

So if you start thinking about that, it becomes pretty obvious what the products need to be: more personalized, much deeper, capable of deeper navigation into a subject. Also, show me the differential. Since you know what you told me yesterday, just tell me what changed today. Don’t repeat everything.

As some news organizations begin charging for digital content, I wondered, how is Google positioned to aid or take advantage of those moves? I mentioned the company’s proposal to power micropayments for news sites with Google Checkout.

Schmidt: The first question: What percentage of news organizations will charge for content? And it’s entirely their decision. If they do so, then we want to make sure that we have products that they can use to help them charge. Right? Because we’re in the infrastructure business. We respond. But, to me, that’s a relatively straightforward infrastructure decision. Could we get them to use Google Checkout, other payment systems, and so forth? But I think it’s early to talk about that.

We also, for newspapers that are trying to solve the revenue gap problem, we’re working hard on stronger advertising products for newspapers. And we’ll see how well they do, but it remains an unsolved problem. That’s probably all I — everything else is tied up in discussions with specific —

David Beard, editor of Boston.com, asked about a remark Schmidt made last month regarding Google’s “moral responsibility” to aid the news industry. Schmidt’s reply:

Schmidt: We have a responsibility. We have not yet figured out how to exercise that responsibility…We’re looking for new ideas. It’s a hard problem because, as everybody knows, printed circulation has declined, and the online use of newspapers has exploded positively. So you’ve got a bridge problem between one and the other, and we want to help. We really do.

A few other tidbits outside our purview:

— Schmidt said invite-only Google Wave is “getting ready for a much broader distribution…very soon,” which he clarified to mean within weeks.

— Surveying the laptops of reporters in the room, he said, “We’ve got a couple Macs — always my favorite.”

— And asked about something Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, Schmidt replied, “I’ve learned not to respond to quotes by Steve Ballmer.”

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