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August 01 2011

13:00

The Vidiots strategy: From commodities to communities

The Times had a noteworthy article in yesterday’s paper, about the approaches independent video rental stores are taking as they battle behemoths like RedBox and Netflix. While many indie shops have simply shut down — R.I.P, Kim’s — others, as the video-world equivalents of Amazon and Walmart encroach on their formerly solid business models, are choosing fight over flight. And they’re fighting, specifically, by reinventing themselves and the products they sell. As corporate Goliaths undersell them — with prices that are, some cases, pretty close to full-on free — some indie stores are simply changing the products they offer.

It’s an old story, to a large extent — much of the article has a 2002 called, wants its trend back vibe to it — but it’s one whose thesis is made fresh by Netflix’s recent announcement of its updated pricing, which could have a big (and good) effect on smaller video stores. (Not only has the move provoked ire in some customers, leading them to defect from the brand altogether; there’s also “the notion that Netflix’s future appears to be in online streaming, not DVD’s, may return some business to video stores, given that fewer movie titles are now available via streaming.”)

For the Lab’s purposes, though, the main story here isn’t just that the video stores are adapting themselves to a new video-consumption environment, but how they’re doing it: through creating community around the products they’re selling. Vidiots, a popular video-rental spot in L.A., opened a community space, the Annex, last year. It uses the space to hold classes (“Film Studies“) and to host events: lectures from filmmakers, spoken-word performances, movie sing-alongs (yesterday’s: Jesus Christ Superstar), and more. (Vidiots also rents out the space when it’s not being used.)

“We felt that with Netflix and the Internet, what we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Patty Polinger, Vidiots’ co-owner, tells the Times’ Nicole Laporte. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.”

Vidiots is a unique case compared to, say, national news organizations: It’s in L.A., and so has special access to filmmakers and their fans; and it deals in movies, which are leisure activities and inherently social and so lend themselves rather seamlessly to in-person cultural events. Still, though, the store’s success (“success,” at this point, in the sense of “survival”) could be instructive for news orgs. Vidiots isn’t just engaging in community for community’s sake, desperately carving out a new revenue stream for itself; it’s taking what you could call its core mission — providing people with entertainment — and simply translating that mission into a new source of sustainment. It’s changing the product it sells, subtly: from movie rentals to movie-based experiences.

Or, in business terms, it’s reconsidering what customers actually “hire” a movie to do. In his course at Harvard’s Business School, the innovation theorist Clayton Christensen tells the story of a fast-food chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales. It hired one of Christensen’s fellow researchers to analyze how, exactly, people were using milkshakes — and discovered that a whopping 40 percent of the chain’s shakes were purchased first thing in the morning, largely by commuters. Though the customers’ moms would be horrified by this, what the researcher discovered was that, to them, the shakes weren’t actually “milkshakes” at all, but rather portable breakfasts that they could nurse through long drives, easily and without mess. The customers weren’t just ordering shakes; they were, essentially, “hiring” the shakes to do a job. Once it had that insight, the chain could focus on offering products that could do that job for its customers.

That simple shift in perspective — thinking in terms of jobs accomplished rather than products offered, and profiting from it — is key to what Vidiots is doing. And it’s intriguing to consider what the shift might look like when applied to journalism. News outlets are certainly getting into the community game — through social media, of course, but also through IRL events like the NYT’s TimesTalks, the Journal’s Weekend Conversations, the Texas Tribune Festival, the Register-Citizen’s newsroom cafe, and on and on — but often those happenings are presented as subsidiary products, as events that are separate from the news itself. They’re just another revenue stream — just another product sold, just another milkshake.

But: What if they were more than that? What if news outlets were to consider themselves as doing a job rather than selling a product? What would happen to organizations’ business models if we started to think of “the news,” at its core, not as a product, but as an event?

March 25 2011

19:30

Journal Register’s open advisory meeting: Bell, Jarvis, and Rosen put those new media maxims to the test

We watchers of media — analysts, theorists, pundits, what you will — make assumptions about journalism that have become, along the way, tenets: Openness and transparency will engender trust…. The process of journalism matters as much as the product…. Engagement is everything…. Etc. We often treat those ideas as general truths, but more accurately they’re simply theories — notions that speak as much to the media environment we’re hoping to create as to the one we currently have.

In that respect, one of the most interesting media outfits to watch — in addition to, yes, the Googles and Twitters of the world — is a chain of community of newspapers dotted along the East Coast. The Journal Register Company, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, has been attempting over the past year to reverse its fortunes with a “digital first” approach to newsgathering that involves a healthy does of New Media Maxim: It’s using free, web-only publishing tools whenever possible. It’s established an “ideaLab,” a group of innovation-focused staffers to experiment with new tools and methods of reporting and engaging with readers. It’s been sharing profits with staff. And it’s convened a group of new media all-stars to serve as advisors as its papers plunge head-first into “digital first.”

Yesterday, those all-stars — Emily Bell, Jeff Jarvis, and Jay Rosen — gathered in the newsroom of JRC’s flagship paper, Torrington, CT’s Register Citizen (home of the famous newsroom cafe, the community media lab, and, as of this week, a used bookstore), to talk innovation strategy with Journal Register staffers. The confab was literally an inside-out version of a typical, closed-door Advisory Board session: Rather than taking place in a closed-off meeting space, the conversation happened around a desk smack in the middle of the Register Citizen’s open, airy newsroom, with the clacking of keyboards and the clicking of microfilm reels and the general hum of journalism being done serving as soundtrack to the discussion.

Most importantly, the meeting was open to the public. Community members (twenty or so of them, including librarians, an assistant schools superintendent, a UConn professor, a state senator, and a representative from the Chamber of Commerce) sat in chairs loosely situated around the advisory board’s oblong desk. (The atmosphere was casual: “We have a bit of an agenda today,” Journal Register CEO John Paton said during his introduction, “but the advisory broad usually works best when it’s just talking about issues.”) And to accommodate the members of the paper’s virtual community, the meeting was also live-streamed, both on the Register Citizen site and on UStream (370 total views). Situated directly above the meeting area was a wall-mounted screen that streamed tweeted questions and comments about the proceedings — from JRC employees and the broader community — via the #JRC hashtag.

As Bell tweeted after the confab concluded: “Never quite been to a meeting like that before.”

I highly recommend watching the archived video of the discussion (above or here): Rarely do journalism’s wide array of interested parties — journalists themselves, business-side executives, academics, analysts, and, of course, community members — come together in such direct dialogue. The conversation that resulted is both telling and, I think, fascinating. But if “Read Later” you must, here are some broad — but, be warned, not even close to summative! — takeaways from the proceedings.

The tension between journalism-as-process and journalism-as-product

During the board’s discussion of engagement and transparency, Emily Olson, the Register Citizen’s managing editor, described a recent experiment in which the editorial staff asked the paper’s readers what they would like the paper to fact-check. The responses, she noted, weren’t gratitude at being asked to participate in the process, but rather sarcasm and indignation: “Why do we have to do your jobs for you? What are you getting paid for?”

While the table generally agreed that a more targeted question — “What do you want us to fact-check about X?” — might have been more effective in terms of eliciting earnest responses, Olson’s experience also hints at one of the broad problems facing news outlets that have so many new engagement mechanisms available to them: How do you serve a wide array of audience interest, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of presentation? How do you accommodate different “levels” of audience, not only when it comes to background information about stories, but also when it comes to the desire for participation? To what extent do people want to participate in the process of journalism, and to what extent do they prefer information that is simply presented to them?

“People,” of course, is anything but monolithic — and that’s the point. Some folks are thrilled, cognitive surplus-style, to have new opportunities to participate in the creative process of journalism. Others, though, want a more sit-back experience of news consumption. They don’t want here’s-how-we-got-the-story or here’s-how-you-can-help; they simply want The News, the product. If you’re a media outlet, how do you enable participation from the former group…without annoying the latter?

The power of data

In a post-meeting discussion, the table agreed on the power of data — not only as a valuable journalistic offering, but also as a means of increasing JRC papers’ pageviews, and thus the company’s bottom line. Rosen noted the telling experience of the Texas Tribune, where a whopping two thirds of total site views come to its data pages.

Data presentations, Rosen noted, can be successful because they bridge the gap between what’s available and what’s accessible in terms of information. Sure, data sets are already out there, so in focusing on them, you might not be adding new information, strictly speaking, into the communal cache of knowledge; but “packaging, framing, explanation, user-friendliness: that’s the value added.”

The Register Citizen recently posted the county schools budget on its site, its publisher, Matt DeRienzo, noted — which was, the board agreed, a good first step in the data direction. The paper could try similar experiments, they suggested with any number of similar data sets, from the already-accessible to the need-to-be-FOIAed. Ultimately, “become the Big Data place,” Jarvis advised.

The benefit of hedged experimentation:

One of JRC’s chief infrastructural advantages — one shared, in various ways, by other media companies — is that it holds several different properties under its auspices. In other words, it has an entire chain of newspapers that it can experiment with, testing everything from those news-innovation-y tenets to more notional what-ifs. If Journal Register, as a whole, wants to figure out the best way to run comments, the Register Citizen could implement Facebook Comments, say, while the New Haven Register could experiment with a HuffPo-style community moderation approach, while the Troy Record could see what happens if comments are turned on for one type of story and disabled for another. For the company overall, risk can be essentially mitigated through experimental diversification — and, on the other hand, the lessons learned from the experiments can be applied company-wide. And, in that way, amplified.

The commenting conundrum

The board’s discussion — as happens a lot — spent a lot of time focused on the ideal way to run comments systems. How do you reward helpful participation while punishing — or, at least, discouraging — trolls and other conversation-killers? “Every community is going to have bozos,” Jarvis noted. “The Internet’s just a community; so it’s going to have bozos.”

A more productive approach than one focused on troll-fighting, the board suggested, might be to focus instead on rewarding good behavior — the Gawker/HuffPo approach that empowers community members to elevate the good comments and demote the bad. Utlimately, though, no one’s “figured out” how to do comments; and that’s partially because each community is different when it comes to the kinds of conversations it wants to conduct and convene online.

What the board — and, from the sounds of things, community members — did agree on, though, was that it’s a good idea to expand the notion of comments beyond the-things-that-follow-a-story. Reframing commentary from the reactive to the more productive — instead of “What did you think of this story?” something like, “How should we write this story?” — could be a useful exercise not only in terms of conversation, but also of engagement and transparency. And, of course, it could keep improving the overall quality of the journalism. “I’m going to be honest — it used to be a joke,” Melanie Macmillan, a reader who’d come to the meeting, noted of the Register Citizen. But now, with the strides it’s making toward openness and involvement, “it’s something I’m proud of.”

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