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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.

September 20 2010

12:56

Entrepreneurial Journalism: The Future Is Now

The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism announced today it will establish the nation’s most intensive program in entrepreneurial journalism with the creation of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and the nation’s first Master of Arts degree in Entrepreneurial Journalism.

The $10 million Tow-Knight Center will receive $3 million in funding from the Tow Foundation of Wilton, Connecticut, and $3 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, supplemented by additional foundation grants and in-kind contributions of staff and technology from the CUNY J-School.

The Center, under the direction of Professor Jeff Jarvis reporting to the School’s Founding Dean Stephen B. Shepard, will work to create a sustainable future for quality journalism in three ways:

- Education of students and mid-career journalists in innovation and business management;
- Research into relevant topics, such as new business models for news;
- Development of new journalistic enterprises.

“We are optimists about the future of journalism,” Professor Jarvis said. “We tell our students they will build that future. To help them do that, we realized we have to give them the ability to create and run new products and new companies. We must train not just journalists but entrepreneurial journalists.”

More info here.

March 15 2010

16:00

The Google/China hacking case: How did the story flow through Chinese-language media?

HONG KONG — A few weeks ago, Jonathan Stray looked at how news is reported and repeated in the new news ecosystem by tracking a single international story — the revelation that last year’s hacking of Google and other companies had been traced to two schools in China. His finding: 121 distinct versions of the story, but only 13 of which included any original reporting.

But Stray’s analysis only looked at English-language media. I wanted to compare his findings with how their Chinese news ecosystem reported the story. So I applied the same research methods to the Chinese-language reporting of this story; I went through every version of the story listed on the China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan editions of Google News to quantitatively examine the coverage on the Chinese-language Internet.

Here’s what I found: Although the total number of versions of the story in Chinese (151) was similar to the number of versions in English (121), the Chinese web pages were almost entirely verbatim reposts of only six pieces of copy, of which four included original reporting.

When Chinese news organizations follow an important and sensitive event, their coverage reflects state media policies. The coverage of the so-called “hacker-training schools” in China offers several clues as to how the Chinese media system, not known for its press freedom, actually works. Independent web sites are not allowed to gather news, and the vast majority didn’t. It’s also much safer to repeat official reports than write original copy when covering politically sensitive topics — and this was certainly a sensitive story for the Chinese government, which has been not-quite-accused by Google of state-sponsored hacking.

There were 151 items on the topic in the Google News story cluster when I gathered them. I went through each, tracking the original source of the copy and the source of the information, among other things, and gathered the results in an spreadsheet. These are the major findings:

There were only six distinct written stories. Four newspapers, a website, and a wire service offered distinct versions of the story of tracing Google’s recent attackers to two schools in China. These media were, in the order that Google News ranked them, Elite Reference (Beijing), China Times (Beijing), China News Service (nationwide), Dazhong Web (Shandong), Qilu Evening News (Shandong), and Information Times (Guangzhou). These six stories were widely reposted by both commercial websites and local newspaper websites. The story from the China News Service was reposted 68 times, while the least repeated story was reposted seven times.

Four of these six stories were based on significant original reporting: China Times, China News Service, Dazhong Web, and Qilu Evening News. The other two stories (from Elite reference and Information Times) rearranged the facts from other media, adding a few comments from news conferences or netizens.

Out of the 151 web pages, 76 (50 percent) were the online outlets of traditional media. Among them, 56 (37 percent) were primarily newspapers, while the others are the websites of TV or radio stations. Private companies or individuals are not permitted to run a newspaper or broadcasting station independent of government oversight in China, so these figures mean that half of the websites following the Google hacking news are effectively state-run media.

Xinhua, the primary state-run Chinese news agency, did not contribute any stories in Chinese, but offered a report in English.

Essentially every web site that was not affiliated with a news agency reposted one of the six stories verbatim. This differed from the practice of English-language web sites, which mostly rewrote the story (without additional reporting). Depending on how you look at it, this is either blatant plagiarism — or extremely efficient.

Again, this is the result of state policy. In China, independent websites are not allowed to conduct interviews or do original reporting. “By maintaining the strictest control over the right to issue, review and revoke press accreditation, the government can exercise control over the media — and potentially over individuals who dare to practice ‘journalism’ outside the system,” according to Qian Gang and David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. Authorized news sites are fed by licensed traditional media. For all other sites, reposting the official stories protects them politically, both from violations of reporting restrictions and from off-message coverage of sensitive topics.

One website, Huameiwang, wrote a summarized story with hyperlinks to relevant articles reposted on its own domain. Due to the journalistic restrictions in force, this form of aggregation is common for online news organizations when covering important news events.

Linking to sources was rare on the Chinese internet. Overall, 118 websites (81 percent of the 145 total reposts) did not link back to the source of their text, and 15 sites did not mention any source at all.

The four pieces offered by the Hong Kong edition of Google News were reposted or rewritten from mainland media and the NYT, as were the stories in the Taiwan edition. For whatever reason, the Chinese-language media in these much less restricted regions did not do original reporting on this story.

Google News missed at least one original story, from the Chinese version of Global Times. There were also different versions of the copy that were not listed, including some less-known local media and bloggers, such as the Xiaoxiang Morning Post in Hunan province.

To summarize: newspapers still played a dominant role in reporting this story, and websites reposted newspaper content repeatedly both for economic and political considerations. Chinese websites rarely did independent reporting, because it isn’t necessary for the online outlets of existing news agencies, and isn’t allowed for all other sites.

The distinct versions of the story are listed in the following table. More information on each of the 151 items (whether or not linked to source, country of publication, primary medium, etc.) is available in the full spreadsheet.

Outlet Sources Dateline Times Reposted Elite Reference NYT, AFP, Xinhua 13 China Times Original, NYT Beijing 29 China News Service Original, NYT Jinan 68 Dazhong Web Original Jinan 7 Qilu Evening News Original 10 Information Times Shanghai Evening Post, Shanghai Morning Post, Qilu Evening News 11

 
Thanks to Jonathan Stray and Yuen-Ying Chan for their contributions.

February 25 2010

15:30

“Burbling blips” & “pyramiding”: What does the Google-China story tell us about how news spreads?

Posts like yesterday’s by my Nieman Lab colleague Jonathan Stray make my academic heart flutter. Stray’s analysis looked at coverage of the latest Google-China developments and found that only 11 percent of the 100-plus news sources did “original reporting” on the issue.

It should join the growing list of reports — from the six year old Harvard Business School study of Trent Lott and the bloggers, to my own research on the Francisville Four, to Yochai Benkler’s work in The Wealth of Networks, to “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle,” to the PEJ study on news diffusion in Baltimore — that help us understand how exactly reporting gets done and news moves in the new digital ecosystem. And Stray’s analysis is data-driven and involves something of a time commitment — but beyond that, it’s the kind of work that could and should be replicated by interested “citizen media scholars” everywhere.

The one sentence take-away from Stray’s analysis was supplied by Howard Weaver in the comments. “Although you seem reluctant to say so,” Weaver wrote, “almost all the genuine journalism here was done by traditional organizations.” This conclusion echoes findings in the recent Baltimore study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, findings which were roundly criticized by some members of the blogosphere, particularly Steve Buttry.

So what does this latest piece of research mean?

One the one hand, the increasingly-frequent findings that the vast majority of original news reporting is still done by large, (relatively) resource-rich news organizations seems almost unworthy of comment. But it’s still worth documenting how, exactly, this plays out in practice.

Even more importantly, there are a few throw-away lines in Stray’s post that I think are worthy of further discussion. The first one is this:

Out of 121 unique stories, 13 (11 percent) contained some amount of original reporting. I counted a story as containing original reporting if it included at least an original quote. From there, things get fuzzy. Several reports, especially the more technical ones, also brought in information from obscure blogs. In some sense they didn’t publish anything new, but I can’t help feeling that these outlets were doing something worthwhile even so. Meanwhile, many newsrooms diligently called up the Chinese schools to hear exactly the same denial, which may not be adding much value.

This gets to the heart of something really important: Is aggregating the content of “obscure bloggers” not really original reporting? Traditionally, of course, it isn’t; reporting is digging up previously undiscovered “documents, sources, and direct observations,” as the j-school saying goes. But, as Stray notes, these outlets that did this were still doing something worthwhile, something that seemed even more important than the work of journalists calling up the Chinese schools to get the same standardized denial.

But what is this “something worthwhile”? Is linking to a smart-but-obscure website really all that different than calling up a trusted source? What’s the line between “aggregation,” “curation,” and “reporting”? Can we even draw the line anymore? And if more than a hundred reporters are hard at work rewriting New York Times copy without adding anything new, maybe they’d be better off doing something else — like curating, for instance. Or (god help us) even linking!

The second line in the Stray post I wanted to highlight is this:

The punchline is that no English-language outlet picked up the original reporting of Chinese-language Qilu Evening News, which was even helpfully translated by Hong Kong blogger Roland Soong [at ESWN].

To which a commenter added:

Google News tends to exclude non-traditional sources to begin with. Otherwise ESWN would show up all the time on these China-related stories, doing original research and reporting.

This concern — what sources does the Google News database include, and what does it exclude — is remarkably similar to the criticism of the PEJ-Baltimore study launched by Steve Buttry: that in drawing a line around “who actually counts” as a journalist to be included in the research, you are affecting the outcome of the research.

What would we find if we combined both these concerns I discuss above? What if we analyzed aggregation as well as reporting, and if we included sources that aren’t included in the Google News database?

My guess — and it’s still only a guess — is that we’d find something like the “burbling blips” that Zach Seward highlighted months ago when he was posting about the dynamics of the news cycle. We’d basically find a news ecosystem where a cluster of small (but often obscure) news outlets discussed a story to death — discussions that were picked up and amplified by the more traditional, reporting-focused media, which then fed its reporting back into the wider blogosphere for further commentary. In my own comment on this subject, I called this process “iterative news pyramiding,”

the leapfrogging of news from tightly linked clusters strung out along the end of the long tail to more all-purpose, more generally read websites that form the ‘core’ of the internet.

Taking everything we’ve learned so far — from Stray, Benkler, Buttry, the Harvard Business School, me, the PEJ, and others — what might we hypothesize about where news comes from and how it moves? Here are a few bullet points for your consideration:

  • Most “original reporting” (as traditionally defined) is still done by large news institutions.
  • Most traditional news institutions are regurgitating the work of other news institutions, rather than adding anything new.
  • An additional, smaller set of online web-sites are also doing original reporting, but this reporting often gets overlooked in studies of where news comes from, mostly due to boundary-drawing issues. And it also gets overlooked by news organizations themselves
  • Aggregation, curation (or whatever) is something unique and valuable, but it isn’t quite reporting and we don’t quite know what to call it yet. In fact — it might be better for democracy to link to a really smart blogger than it would be to call up a source and get the same meaningless quote that one-thousand other journalists have also gotten.
  • Online, news often originates and moves in a “blippy,” heartbeat-like fashion, but we can only see this if we take aggregation seriously as a journalistic form, and only if we include “obscure bloggers” in our data-set.

What do you all think?

February 24 2010

15:00

The Google/China hacking case: How many news outlets do the original reporting on a big story?

We often talk about the new news ecosystem — the network of traditional outlets, new startups, nonprofits, and individuals who are creating and filtering the news. But how is the work of reporting divvied up among the members of that ecosystem?

To try to build a datapoint on that question, I chose a single big story and read every single version listed on Google News to see who was doing the work. Out of the 121 distinct versions of last week’s story about tracing Google’s recent attackers to two schools in China, 13 (11 percent) included at least some original reporting. And just seven organizations (six percent) really got the full story independently.

But as usual, things are a little more subtle than that. I chose the Google-China story because it’s complex, international, sensitive, and important. It’s the sort of big story that requires substantial investigative effort, perhaps including inside sources and foreign-language reporting. Call it a stress test for our reporting infrastructure, a real-life worst case.

The New York Times broke the story last Thursday, writing that unnamed sources involved in the investigation of last year’s hacking of a number of American companies had traced the attacks to a prestigious technical university and a vocational college in mainland China. The article included comment from representatives of the schools and, while it had a San Francisco dateline, credited contributions from Shanghai staff. Immediately, the story was everywhere. Just about every major American newspaper and all the wires covered it.

When I started investigating the issue on Monday morning, Google News showed 800 different reports. But how many of these reports actually brought new information to light? By default, Google does not display duplicate copies of syndicated (or stolen) content, bringing the total down to more than 100 unique pieces of copy. I read each one, and several hours later, I had a spreadsheet recording the sourcing for each story. I also recorded the country of publication, the dateline or contributor location if noted, and the primary publishing medium of each outlet (paper, online, radio, etc.) An excerpt of this data is reproduced in the table below.

Here’s what I found:

Out of 121 unique stories, 13 (11 percent) contained some amount of original reporting. I counted a story as containing original reporting if it included at least an original quote. From there, things get fuzzy. Several reports, especially the more technical ones, also brought in information from obscure blogs. In some sense they didn’t publish anything new, but I can’t help feeling that these outlets were doing something worthwhile even so. Meanwhile, many newsrooms diligently called up the Chinese schools to hear exactly the same denial, which may not be adding much value.

Only seven stories (six percent) were primarily based on original reporting. These were produced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Tech News World, Bloomberg, Xinhua (China), and the Global Times (China).

Of the 13 stories with original reporting, eight were produced by outlets that primarily publish on paper,  four were produced by wire services, and one was produced by a primarily online outlet. For this story, the news really does come from newspapers.

14 reports (12 percent) were produced by Chinese outlets, had a China dateline, or mentioned the assistance of staff in China. For a story about China, that seems awfully low to me. Perhaps this has to do with cutbacks of foreign correspondents?

Nine reports (7 percent) mentioned no source at all. Five more were partially unsourced. Given the ease of hyperlinks, this frightens me.

Google News tended to rank solid original stories fairly high in its list. Google says they rank stories based on criteria such as the reputation of a source, number of references by other articles, and the headline clickthrough rate — though they won’t reveal exactly how it’s done. The spreadsheet and table below list stories in the order that Google News ranked them.

Google’s story-clustering algorithm included three unrelated stories and missed at least one original report. The three extraneous stories were about Google and China, but not about the recent trace. The exclusion of the Financial Times’ excellent piece is a disappointment — perhaps this has something to do with their paywall? Maybe I’m biased because, as a computer scientist, I appreciate the difficulty of the problem — but I actually think this means that Google News works remarkably well, for a completely unsupervised algorithm that crawls billions of pages to find millions of stories in dozens of languages.

What were those other 100 reporters doing? When I think of how much human effort when into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe. That’s a huge amount of journalistic effort that could have gone into reporting other deserving stories. Why are we doing this? What are the legal, technical, economic and cultural barriers to simply linking to the best version of each story and moving on?

The punchline is that no English-language outlet picked up the original reporting of Chinese-language Qilu Evening News, which was even helpfully translated by Hong Kong blogger Roland Soong. A Chinese reporter visited one of the schools in question and advanced the story by clarifying that serious hackers were unlikely to have been trained in the vocational computer classes offered there. Soong told me that Lanxiang Vocational School is well known in China for their cheesy late-night commercials and low-quality schooling — more of an educational chop shop for cooks and mechanics than the training ground for military hackers than the Times claims.

Tracing one story doesn’t prove anything conclusive beyond that one story, of course. And using Google News as a filter doesn’t truly represent the new news ecosystem: It excludes lots of smaller blogs and other outlets. Soong said Google News told him that his site is not eligible for inclusion in their results because they don’t include small blogs written by a single author. This seems like an arbitrary distinction, but it’s hard to imagine what defensible choice Google could make in an era where the definition of a news source is so up for grabs.

The table below is an extract from the data I collected, with original reporting highlighted. The full spreadsheet also includes country of publication, primary medium for each organization, and lists whether or not each story hyperlinked to its sources.

Article Sources Dateline Calgary Herald Xinhua, NYT (via AFP) ABC AP, Xinhua Shanghai Xinhua original Shanghai MarketWatch NYT, Xinhua San Francisco Reuters Xinhua, NYT Shanghai OneIndia China Daily, NYT (via ANI) Bejing Economic Times ? Washington PC Magazine Blogs NYT Washington Post original, NYT Bejing Times Online NYT Washington Information Week NYT, original FOX News NYT (via AP) The Canadian Press NYT (via AP) Taipei Times (via NYT) San Francisco The Register NYT, Guardian UK, blog The Inquirer AP MarketWatch NYT San Francisco ComputerWorld NYT, blog Telegraph UK NYT PC World NYT, Xinhua Telegraph UK NYT Los Angeles Wall Street Journal original, Xinhua, NYT The Guardian NYT, original Business Week (Bloomberg) Washington AFP NYT New York Reuters NYT New York New York Times original San Francisco, Shanghai Daily Contributor PC World CCTV China Daily, NYT, original Australia Network News Xinhua, NYT After Dawn ?, NYT Top News NYT Daily Latest News ? Press Trust of India China Daily, NYT Bejing UPI NYT New York Security Pro News ? Gizmodo NYT Tom’s Guide NYT Digital Media Wire NYT Mountain View Tech News World original, NYT Global Times original, “agencies” io9 NYT, Guardian ZD Net NYT Benzinga NYT Fox Business NYT CrunchGear NYT AOL News NYT, Guardian, WSJ Tech Blorge NYT KLIV NYT Silicon Valley eWeek NYT TMCnet NYT News.am NYT Chattabox NYT Datamation NYT The New New Internet NYT IT Pro Portal Business Week, Telegraph, PC World The Hill NYT Grab Geek Points NYT DBTechno NYT Boston IT Chuiko NYT All Things Digital NYT Before It’s News NYT V3 ? San Jose Business Journal NYT Help Net Security NYT Channel Web NYT Marketing Pilgrim NYT The Money Times NYT TG Daily NYT, Guardian ABH News NYT, ? Top News NYT, ? PCR NYT Top News NYT Daily Finance NYT, Hacker Journals Shuttervoice ? Thinq NYT Top News NYT New York Magazine NYT Venture Beat NYT Fast Company NYT Gather News NYT Newser NYT NASDAQ NYT (via Dow Jones Newswire) Reuters Xinhua Shanghai PC World NYT, Xinhua Herald Sun NYT, Xnhua (via AFP) Bejing The Hindu ? The Times of India ? Daily Mail NYT PC World NYT, blogs ComputerWorld NYT (via IDG) News.com.au NYT The Globe and Mail NYT, original (via Reuters) 9News NYT Redmond Pie NYT,? Red Orbit NYT New Public NYT Sydney Morning Herald NYT (via AP) Gulf Times NYT MyNews Xinhua, NYT (via Indo Asian News) Zeenews (India) NYT, Xinhua (via PTI) The Tech Herald NYT, Guardian Bejing Web Pro News Financial Tines, NYT Business Insider NYT The Financial Express original, NYT (via Bloomberg) Tech Eye NYT, ? CIO NYT, WSJ (via IDG) Tech Blorge NYT, Xinhua CNET NYT, Xinhua ZD Net NYT, Washington Post China Daily NYT, original Bejing News ? What’s on Xiamen NYT, Xinhua NPR NYT San Francisco Chronicle NYT, Xinhua (via AP) Shanghai The Cap Times NYT, AP, Computer World Little About NYT, Xinhua (via Indo Asian News) Jinan Little About NYT, original (via Asian News Intl) Bejing San Francisco Chronicle NYT (via AP) San Francisco Portfolio.com NYT World Market Media ?

January 15 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Who’s responsible for local news, and Google plays hardball with China

[Our friend Mark Coddington has spent the past several months writing weekly summaries of what's happened in the the changing world of journalism — both the important stories and the debates that came up around them online. I've liked them so much that I've asked him to join us here at the Lab. So every Friday morning — especially if you've been too busy to stay glued to Twitter and your RSS reader — come here to recap the week and see what you've missed. —Josh]

Who reports local news?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study Monday that aimed to find out “who really reports the news that most people get about their communities?” In studying the Baltimore news media ecosystem for a week, the study found that traditional media — especially newspapers — did most of the original reporting while new media sources functioned largely as a quick way to disseminate news from other places.

The study got pretty predictable reactions: Major mainstream sources (New York Times, AP, L.A. Times) repeated that finding in perfunctory write-ups. (Poynter did a bit more with it, though.) It inspired at least one “see how important newspapers are?” column. And several new media thinkers pooh-poohed it, led by CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis, who said it “sets up a strawman and then lights the match.” Steve Buttry (who notes he’s a newspaper/TV exec himself) offered the sharpest critique of the study, concluding that it’s too narrow, focuses on stories that are in the mainstream media’s wheelhouse, and has some damning statistics for traditional-media reporting, too. Former journalist John Zhu gave an impassioned rebuttal to Jarvis and Buttry that’s well worth a read, too.

(A couple of interesting tangential angles if you want to dig deeper: New York Times media critic David Carr explains why blogs aren’t geared toward original reporting, and new media giant Gawker offers a quick can’t-we-all-just-get-along post saying web journalism needs more reporting and newspapers need to get up to speed.)

My take: I’m with CUNY’s C.W. Anderson and USC’s David WestphalOf course traditional media organizations report most of our news; this finding is neither a threat to new-media folks nor ammunition for those in old media. (I share Zhu’s frustration here — let’s quit turning every new piece of information into a political/rhetorical weapon and start working together to fix our system of news.) Clay Shirky said it well last March: The new news systems won’t come into place until after the old ones break, not before. Why would we expect any different now? Let’s accept this study as rudimentary affirmation of what already makes sense and keep plugging away to make things better.

Google talks tough with China: Citing attacks from hackers and limits on free speech, Google made big news this week by announcing it won’t censor its Chinese results anymore and is considering pulling out of the country altogether. The New York Times has a lucid explanation of the situation, and this 2005 Wall Street Journal article is good background on Google/China relations. Looking for something more in-depth? Search engine maven Danny Sullivan is your guy.

The Internet practically blew up with commentary on this move, so suffice it to say I’m only scratching the surface here. (GigaOm has a nice starter for opinions outside of the usual tech-blog suspects.) Many Google- and China-watchers praised the move as bold step forward for freedom, like Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”; China/IT expert Rebecca MacKinnon (twice); New York Times human rights watchdog Nicholas Kristof; and tech guru Robert Scoble, to name a few.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy was more cynical, saying this was a business move for Google. (Sullivan and Scoble rebut the point in the links above.) Global blogging advocate Ethan Zuckerman laid out four possible explanations for the decision. The Wall Street Journal and Wired had some more details about Google’s internal arguments over this move, including their concerns about repercussions on the China employees. The China-watching blog Imagethief looked at the stakes for Google, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who got back from China not too long ago, has a quick take on the stakes from a foreign-relations standpoint.

Jarvis also took the opportunity to revisit a fascinating point from his book: Google has become an “interest-state,” an organization that collaborates and derives power outside of the traditional national borders. Google’s actions this week certainly seemed very nation-like, and the point is worth pondering.

Fox News ethics: Fox News was the subject of a couple of big stories this week: The biggest came Monday, when the network announced that it had signed Sarah Palin to a multiyear deal as a contributor. Most of the online commentary has focused on what this move means from Palin’s perspective (if that’s what you’re looking for, the BBC has a good roundup), but I haven’t found much of substance looking at this from the Fox/news media angle. I’m guessing this is for two reasons: Nobody in the world of media-thinkers is surprised that Fox has become a home for another out-of-office Republican, and none of them are taking Fox very seriously from an ethical standpoint in the first place.

Salon founder and blogging expert Scott Rosenberg found this out the frustrating way when he got an apathetic response to his question of how Fox will cover any stories that involve her. As I responded to Rosenberg on Twitter, I think the lack of interest in his question are a fascinating indication of media watchers’ cynicism about Fox’s ethics. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Fox News would be a shill for Palin regardless of whether she was an employee, simply by virtue of her conservatism. Regardless of whether you think that attitude is justified (I do), it’s sad that that’s the situation we’re in.

Fox News was also involved in a strange chain of events this week that started when The New York Times published a front-page profile of its chief, Roger Ailes. It included some stinging criticism from Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law, British PR bigwig Matthew Freud. That led to speculation by The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff that Ailes’ days were numbered at Fox, with Wolff actually asserting that Ailes had already been fired. Then the L.A. Times reported that Ailes was still around and had News Corp.’s full support. Um, OK.

Facebook says privacy’s passé: In a short interview last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a sort-of explanation for Facebook’s sweeping privacy changes last month, one that ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick recognized as a dramatic break from the privacy defenses Zuckerberg’s given in the past. Essentially, Kirkpatrick infers, Zuckerberg is saying he considers us to now be living in an age where privacy just doesn’t matter as much to people.

Kirkpatrick and The Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley give two spirited rebuttals, and over at the social media hub Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik says journalists should be worried about Facebook’s changes, too. Meanwhile, Advertising Age media critic Simon Dumenco argues that we’re not getting enough out of all the information we’re feeding Facebook and Twitter.

Reading roundup: These last few items aren’t attached to any big media-related conversations from this week, but they’re all worth a close read. First, in the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles made the bold argument that there is no revenue model for journalism. Steve Buttry filed a point-by-point rebuttal, and the two traded counterpoints in the comments of each other’s posts. It’s a good debate to dive into.

Second, Alan Mutter, an expert on the business side of the news industry, has a sharp two-part post crunching the numbers to find out how long publishers can afford to keep their print products going. He considers a few scenarios and concludes that “some publishers may not be able to sustain print products for as long as demand holds out.”

And finally, Internet freedom writer and activist Cory Doctorow explains the principle “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll,” and how it needs to drive our new-media experimentation. It’s a smart, optimistic yet grounded look at the future of innovation, and I like its implications for the future of journalism.

Photo of Sarah Palin by The NewsHour used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2009

01:44

The near future

Xark raised fair and unfair criticism of our work at the New Business Models for News Project. I’ll respond:

Xarc’s Dan Conover says that the models we presented look a lot like present models, only different. Fair and true. Our goal was to look at what news in a metro market would look like if the large daily paper died today. — not in the la-la land of the future of news and media I often write about here (more on that in a minute) — but today.

So we based our assumptions on known realities: on local bloggers who are making a living and how they are doing it today, on new news organizations that are springing up today, on the proportion of digital revenue being earned today.

If you’ve heard any of my presentations of the models, you have heard me lament that we chose to work in the lingua franca of the present: CPM-based display advertising and criminally low engagement numbers that are sinfully standard in the newspaper business. Neither is good enough. But we wanted to use a language and precedents that people in this space would understand. We then pushed development of new models for revenue and of networks that must be used to increase value.

Conover says that without an “exit strategy” a hyperlocal blog is not a business but merely a job. With respect, he is judging the entrepreneurial future of news through old, institutional glasses. Much of the work of very local journalism will be done by these new, single-proprietor businesses (and volunteers). If we took his perspective, then there would be little potential in the restaurant, drycleaning, plumbing, or dental industries because many of their practitioners have no exit strategy, only sustainable jobs. Welcome to the new, small-is-the-new-big world. This is precisely why we propose that critical mass will be reached not with old companies owning the market but with new companies operating together in networks. See: Glam, the largest women’s brand online. New model.

Conover is fair to say that the future – not today but tomorrow – won’t look much like the present, including the present we postulate in our models. I do indeed agree that the future could look wildly different. I have speculated about systems for sharing information that will reduce the marginal cost of news to zero with journalists adding value only where appropriate and where that value can be recouped. I have blathered on and on about hyperpersonal news streams replacing the article as the atomic unit of news. I have predicted a world with networked journalism, news made by Wave, and similar outlandishness. If I had tried to present all that as a vision for the news of today – the day a paper dies – I would have blown brains and been laughed out of Aspen and with good reason. But that was not the goal of the New Business Models for News Project. It was to get people to see a new today.

Believe me, Dan, if you want to have a future-shock derby with far out ideas for what news will look in the future but sooner than we think, then I’m happy to compete. But that wasn’t our job here.

And don’t blame the funder of our work for that. Connover is unfair to slap the Knight Foundation, which paid for the first phase of this work, saying: “In the short term, foundation money is likely to continue producing studies based on business models that reflect conventional wisdom about media.” The Knight Foundation did not tell us how to envision our models; that is an allegation without evidence.

It’s particularly unfair since the Knight Foundation – more than any other foundation – has been aggressively pushing inventors to imagine and create new visions and realities for news. The Knight Foundation generally does not favor institutions over entrepreneurs; quite the contrary. You’re free to judge my defense of Knight in light of the fact that they did fund this phase of my work. But I think Knight’s work defends itself.

So, yes, Dan, I do agree that the models were based on present realities. That was precisely what we set out to do: to envision an immediate future that will be credible in present terms. But I also take the challenge to envision more futures for news and – if you watched my presentations – you’d see some I hope to work on. I want to examine the workings of the link economy I talk about so much and prescribe how to exploit it. I want to examine new content exchange models. I want to examine entirely new forms of news and the exchange of information.

This Wednesday in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY, my students will present to a jury 15 businesses, some of which begin to imagine fairly radical new visions of news. They hope to win some of the $50,000 in seed money we have from another foundation, McCormick. And then they hope to go build those businesses and make them sustainable the day after tomorrow. Thursday, that is.

November 24 2009

15:38

NewBizNews Conference Videos: Understanding Business Models

Jennifer McFadden, business analyst for the project, and Jeff Mignon and Nancy Wang of Mignon Media drill down into the spreadsheets of the hyperlocal and new news organization business models.

November 23 2009

16:20

NewBizNews Conference Videos: Business Models and Q & A

At the New Business Models for (Local) News Conference on November 11, Jennifer McFadden (business analyst for the Knight Foundation-funded CUNY Project) and Jeff Mignon and Nancy Wang of Mignon Media present business models for hyperlocal sites and a new metro news organization.

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis, business analyst Jennifer McFadden, and Jeff Mignon and Nancy Wang of Mignon Media follow up their morning presentations at the New Business Models for (Local) News Conference with a Q & A session.


November 20 2009

13:03

NewBizNews Conference: The Videos

Videos from the New Business Models for (Local) News Conference and HyperCamp will be posted over the next week. Here, Jeff Jarvis presents an overview of a new ecosystem for news.


November 13 2009

18:22

NewBizNews Conference Follow-up

Thanks to everyone who participated in the New Business Models for (Local) News Conference and HyperCamp on Wednesday, November 11. A lot of ground was covered in the numerous panels and we’ll keep the discussion going here on newsinnovation.com with upcoming posts and video clips. Shout out to Ted Mann of inJersey/Gannett and Jim Schachter of The New York Times for their help.

November 12 2009

20:52

The balance shifts

At yesterday’s New Business Models for (Local) News summit at CUNY, I ran what I called a reverse panel with big media folks – NY Times, Washington Post, Gannett, Star-Ledger, Impremedia, Politico – sitting up front but ordered to listen to the wishes and needs of the people in the room. I threatened to cover the big guys’ mouths with duct tape. (A few of them seemed to honestly fear I would do that. I do need to investigate this reputation I’ve garnered.)

The putative war between mainstream media and bloggers has been declared over again and again (myself, I reported a truce three and a half years ago… oh, well). So I won’t act as there aren’t still the lone snipers in the mountains. Bloggers from medium-sized cities had plenty of complaints about the disrespect they see from their local medium-sized media outlets.

But importantly, I did see a shift in the balance of power yesterday. The big media guys on this reverse panel made it crystal clear that they not only respect but need the work of the bloggers/citizens/little-media-guys/whatever you choose to call them. The big guys acknowledged openly that they are shrinking and can no longer even pretend that they can do it all themselves.

For their part, the bloggers also made it clear that they respect and thus want attention – promotion and credit – from the big guys.

Group hug.

We are at various fulcrum points. The big, old media outlets can no longer act as if they have no problems; it’s obvious, they do. The upstarts are beginning to catch a glimmer of critical mass; we see blogs starting up all over and there are lots of new news organizations – most of them not-for-profit – rising in San Diego, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Austin; now they are joined by the for-profit local Politico. Even if you disagree with me that the future of news is entrepreneurial, there’s now no denying there is a future there.

And so the room was filled with people who were, each in his or her own way, building that future and they all recognized that they have to work together to do so. The future of news is also an ecosystem. That’s what became apparent yesterday and that, for me, was the highlight of the event.

* * *

We’re doing our post-mortems on the event at CUNY to figure out what to do better next time – and it’s clear there is a need for more of these gatherings here in New York and, we hope, across the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, bringing together builders. We heard a lot from the room about what they want next: More best practices from the kind of real experience that fed our models…. More practical advice for making money…. More education…. I’ll come back with additional thoughts after my thorough-going exhaustion wears off.

My personal thanks to the team at CUNY – led by Peter Hauck, Jennifer McFadden, and Matt Sollars – for doing great work in the models and the event and to the funders who made it possible: The MacArthur Foundation funded the events (and the prior summit led directly to a request to do the work we presented at this one); the Knight Foundation funded the work on our models and presentation of them at the Aspen Institute; the McCormick Foundation is funding ongoing work on new business models; and the Carnegie Corporation is funding work on hyperlocal labs. We’re also grateful to Mignon Media – Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon – for their incredible work on the models; David Cohn for his tireless efforts helping us organize the events; Borrell Associates for their data and advice; and all the companies and individuals who participated yesterday. Thanks.

20:51

The future of business is in ecosystems

Last week, I said that the future of news is entrepreneurial (not institutional). Today, a sequel: The future of business is in ecosystems (not conglomerates or industries).

At the Foursquare conference last week, I was struck by the miss-by-a-mile worldviews held by the chiefs of big, old conglomerates and the entrepreneurs starting new, nimble companies. The conference is off the record, so I won’t quote anyone by name. And in truth, these are the same conversations I hear often elsewhere. Having these different tribes conveniently in the same room merely focused the contrast for me.

In one moment, a very successful mogully man was slack-jawed in amazement at how little money – “$50,000!” – one of three entrepreneurs had used to start another fast-growing enterprise. The big man thinks big – that’s what made him big. The small guys think small and get big by using existing platforms and depending on their users to like and market them. To the new guys, it’s so obvious.

Here was the key moment for me last week: In a discussion about the importance of distribution, some start-up guys – each the creators of new enterprises that took off like gun shots – were asked by a representative of the big, old club which company they would most want to do distribution deals with. The start-up guys cocked their heads like confused puppies. Why would we want to do that? they asked. What was unsaid: Doing a deal with one company would be so limiting. We get our distribution through customers and developers, through embedding and APIs and social connections. That’s how we grew so big so fast for so little. Don’t you see that?

No, they don’t.

This week, we see this contrast, too, in Rupert Murdoch’s threat – he thinks it’s a threat – to cut off Google. Nose. Face. Cut. Spite. Murdoch – whodoesn’t use the internet – does not see how distribution works today. He does not understand that being open to the link economy brings him free distribution, free marketing, great benefit. That’s because he, like his fellow old machers, won by taking control rather than giving it up. This new world is utterly inside-out from the world they built. It breaks all their rules and makes new ones (which is what I tried to analyze in What Would Google Do?). That’s what makes it so damned hard for them to understand it.

In our New Business Models for News at CUNY, we saw quickly that a big, old newspaper company was not going to be replaced by a big, new newspaper company but that instead, news would come more and more from ecosystems made up of scores of companies operating under different means, motives, and models, each dependent on the others to optimize their success. That is why we built in networks that enable separate sites to join, creating critical mass they can sell to advertisers. That is also why we factored in the benefit of platforms, cutting their infrastructure costs to near-zero.

And there, I believe, is the structure of the future of business in the new, post-industrial, decentralized, opened economy. Oh, sure, every economy has always been an ecosystem made up of interdependent relationships. But they were based on zero-sum arithmetic: take and control so others cannot. They work at arm’s length. They negotiate every relationship.

Sure, even in the huggy ecosystem, companies fight and compete. But in an ecosystem-based economy, companies benefit – they find efficiency and growth – by working collaboratively. As I see it, the new economy and its opportunities will be built in three layers:

1. Platforms. There’s tremendous benefit in building a platform and the more people use to succeed, the more the platform succeeds. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay – you know all the examples.

2. Entrepreneurial enterprises.
Thanks to the platforms, it’s incredibly inexpensive to start new companies. It’s also a helluva lot cheaper to fail (and try again). This is why I believe that the future of news – and many other industries – is entrepreneurial: because it can be. It’s not just media and its bits. It’s manufacturing (because you can use others’ factories and distribution channels and your own customers as your platforms).

3. Networks. It is still necessary to gather the smalls together into bigs: audience brought together so advertisers can buy access to them more easily; purchasing brought together to get better prices. So there is business in creating and serving these networks.

For the sake a PowerPoint, a diagram of the three layers of an ecosystem-based economy:

ecosystemchart500

In our New Business Models for News Project, this is how I (crudely) drew the ecosystem for news.

ecosystemnews

How do you draw the conglomerate-based industry? With boxes, each separate, with arrows pointing to each other at a distance. Simplistic? Sure, but the change in the worldview of the new economy looks that basic when you hear the two tribes trying to understand each other.

And if you haven’t had enough of my silly charts, here’s another on video.

November 11 2009

14:34

Livestream: NewBiz Conference

Our third annual summit on the future of news is getting started. Today it’s all about local. We’ll be tweeting all day, too. Hit us up with questions and comments, the hashtag is #newbiz. Conference details and schedule are here. And, here’s the livestream for your viewing pleasure:

November 10 2009

15:09

NewBizNews Conference Schedule: 11/11/09

Take a look at the latest lineup for tomorrow’s New Business Models for (Local) News Conference and HyperCamp.

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