New blog

I've retired this blog for now and moved the discussion to a new site: NewsFuturist. It was time for a dedicated domain name and a niche focus on the future of journalism topics. Please join me there and subscribe if you're interested.


A 'Source of Inspiration' for news reformers

In their weekly "Rebooting the News" podcast, NYU's Jay Rosen and the Internet's Dave Winer have started a tradition of citing a "source of inspiration" each week. It is one person or idea that brings much needed clarity and optimism amid the sea of uncertainty about the future of news.

I have one of my own to share. This comes from a recently posted talk from TED (a group I've previously touted). In it Bennington College President Liz Coleman calls for professors and scientists to break out of their narrow, isolated disciplines and work together in political and social activism. In noting the difficulty of the task, she closes with a call I find rings true also for those of us struggling with finding the sustainable future of news.

She says:
"If the question of where to start seems overwhelming, you are at the beginning, not the end of this adventure. Being overwhelmed is the first step if you are serious about trying to get at things that really matter on a scale that makes a difference. So what do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Well, you have two things. You have a mind, and you have other people. Start with those, and change the world."
And that, to me, is about right. As huge as the idea of reinventing an entire societal system of journalism sounds, it really just starts with applying your own mind honestly, critically, openly (pushing past your own biases and traditional assumptions) -- and joining with others who do the same to collaborate and develop solutions.


Paid Content: An Intellectually Bankrupt Model

The revived attempts to charge for access to news content online are moves of desperation, not reasoned strategy. Just listen to the explanations from two industry executives leading the charge.

News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch says “It is clear to many newspapers that the current model is malfunctioning.”

And as MediaNews Group Inc. CEO William Dean Singleton announced last week that his 54 daily newspapers would begin charging for online content, he wrote: “We cannot continue to give all of our content away for free.”

What you hear from these men are reasons they don't like the free-with-advertising model, or reasons they think people SHOULD have to pay for their product. You hear frustration, and you hear Ego. You don't hear a reason that charging for content will work.

I hope Dean Singleton actually reads news coverage about his paid-content move. If he reads the San Francisco Chronicle's story, he'll see two people offering wise words that he should consider. The first is from Vivian Schiller, president and chief executive of National Public Radio who ran the TimesSelect paid content experiment for NYTimes.com:
"What scares me about serious news organizations putting up pay walls is that not only are they going to kill their relevance by locking the content out of the national dialogue, but also the advertisers will flee."
The second point has to do with the REALITY of how people consume news and whether they WOULD pay for it, beyond Singleton's opinion that they should. Paul Grabowicz, an associate dean and director of the new media program at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism:

"People were abandoning what we were doing long before the Internet came along. Is there any business model that is going to support journalism at the level of say a big metropolitan paper that operates as essentially a monopoly? No, those days are gone."

What might work, he said, are models based on coverage of "very local content, based in neighborhoods, towns and cities, content or news organized around different topics."

Now that is some reporting that Singleton should be willing to pay for, and should pay attention to.


New Kindle won't save newspapers

There is lots of chatter flying around Twitter this morning about the new big-screen Kindle to be announced in May. Much of it is driven by this report in the New York Times about how some daily papers are pinning hopes to this.

It is false and potentially harmful hope, in that it may again give newspaper folks a sense of comfort that stifles will for the REAL INNOVATIONS that are needed.

Electronic display of the same old newspaper page is not going to be anyone's savior. It's still the same content in the same broadsheet-page package with the same old limitations and entirely the same faltering business model underlying it.

Anyone who won't pick up a printed newspaper for 50 cents is not going to buy a $500-$600 (estimated) big-screen kindle so they can read the newspaper. This will be a bridge technology adopted by some upper-middle-class baby boomers who already read the print newspaper and can afford a new toy. But the Kindle-like devices will not reach any of the markets that newspapers are losing to other online competitors.

As for the business model, it is not improved. Newspapers would still be planning to display ads on their Kindle pages from department stores (another dying business), and realtors and car dealers (who have nothing to advertise right now).

Newspapers need entirely new ways of covering communities, especially by getting the public involved and becoming the key online gathering spot for their local communities. Doing the same old thing on electronic paper won't cut it.


When newspapers (should have) invented Twitter

A story I wish were true:

In early 2006, a committee of reporters, editors and web specialists at a
major U.S. newspaper chain gathered in room for a week to brainstorm ways to
adapt the new social media trends to the future of their news business.

After much discussion about possible changes to their own sites and
portfolio of web content, they arrived at the much bigger idea: Create something
not just on their sites. Something suited for promoting and spreading news, but
usable for all types of communication and sharing. Create a platform that does
not require news sharing, but naturally encourages it by making it easy and
useful. Let anyone join and share and choose who else they want to hear

They did it. And the number of users and visits grew 1000% a year. It
unleashed an audience and appetite for the newspapers' chief commodity -- what's
happening now and why. It even created unexpected benefits of being able to
monitor the users' ongoing conversation trends and receive news leads.

Suddenly Google and venture capital firms were interested in pumping
millions of dollars into expanding the service -- a growth spot that helped the
company weather a brutal recession that would strike the industry hard in late

Newspapers should have invented Twitter. But they didn't (for familiar reasons -- "Mad-Cash Cow Disease" being a main one. The print game was so good for so long that it sapped any "fierce urgency of now" to steer yesterday's 25% profit margins into tomorrow's innovations.)

Instead, three guys named Biz Stone (@Biz), Jack Dorsey (@Jack) and Evan Williams (@Ev) were the ones in 2006 who devised a system built on sharing short bursts of information. They called it Twitter. (A few years before, @Ev created this system I'm blogging on)

Though they missed the chance to create and own it, newspapers still can seize the chance to use this information-sharing medium to share their information in new ways. In fact, they must. Specific Twitter strategies will be topics for another day.


The Great Compromise, and why it's killing newspapers

The questions puzzle anyone who watches the news industry -- Why didn't newspapers adapt years ago, when resources were plentiful, to remodel themselves for the online era of news? Why aren't they changing more aggressively now? Do they just not get it?

Well, some people in the industry don't "get it," but a lot of them do. (A study coming on or about May 12 from the Media Management Center will show that 43% of newsroom staffers say their digital conversion should move faster; only 7% think it's moving too fast) A lot of them really understand the underpinnings and implications of the "link economy", social networks and other emerging trends. Why, then, are their institutions still struggling to live up to its demands?

The answer: It's REALLY difficult to have any one institution, one group of workers, divide their focus between two radically different models and succeed at both. Specifically, it's really difficult to produce a great newspaper and a great community web site at the same time. They demand fundamentally different things and force choices that slight one medium or the other.

In short, newspapers are doing the splits as they try to keep one foot in each of two diverging worlds. (That forthcoming MMC survey shows 31% of newsroom effort is devoted to digital products, and that staffers on average think their jobs should be about 50/50 web and print). I see this quite clearly as someone simultaneously responsible for putting out the local print edition news every day and for directing online content and news strategy. Here are some examples of key contradictions:

• Production and planning. A lot goes on behind the scenes at a daily news organization. The major meeting of the day comes in late afternoon to plan what stories go on what print pages for the next day. In a web-centered newsroom, you might have that meeting at 6 am to be on top of the morning traffic peak. Tough choice: schedule your day and planning around the 24-hour web cycle or the daily morning print cycle? You can't really do both (unless you just meet all day, which is even worse).

• Staff specialties. A web-centered newsroom would have a team of web developers working constantly on special projects and beta experiments. In reality, most newsrooms are lucky to have one or two people capable of this, and even then they may not be given the time or freedom to innovate. Tough choice: spend salary on a print copy editor or a web developer. You can't do both.

• Writing style and content focus. Most newspaper-based news organizations are still writing "newspaper stories" and posting them online. It's what they know. A web-focused organization, however, would rarely write a single long block of words to tell a story. We would focus on shorter, conversational-style, blog-like entries -- heavy on links and embedded media. Tough choice: write for a print style audience or a web community. You can't really do both well.

I could go on, but those are some common examples. Most of you, like me, would choose the "web answer" to each of the dilemmas above. After all, we "get it," right? But it's impossible for any newspaper-legacy organization at this point to follow those instincts purely, mostly because revenue is still 90% print, 10 % online. You just can't ignore the money (and if you can, bet your publisher will pull you back to reality).

And so, newspaper folks like me who "get it," still continue the Great Compromise of straddling print and online with dwindling resources and staff -- doing neither as excellently as we would like.


US Senate hearings slated on newspapers' future

The US government is reaching out a hand to newspapers -- holding hearings soon on the industry's condition and presumably considering a bailout package.

Newspapers should be very wary. Bailout money sure sounds good, and there's so much of it flying around these days that it seems less a big deal. But it is.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, or free lunch money. If the government gives out cash it wants, and does deserve, some control and at least oversight of the people receiving it. See the hyperventilation over AIG bonuses and the current federal "stress tests" of banks to determine which ones are allowed to survive.

Newspapers should not, in fact may not, accept any such deals. "Congress shall make NO LAW ... abridging ... the freedom of the press." The Bill of Rights isn't a covenant newspapers can waive, even if they're desperate enough to want to.

Imagine in a year or three the federal government conducting "stress tests" of US newspapers and ordering those who fail to shut down. Imagine the chilling effect on a press that depends on the government to stay alive. Now is the time to avoid that.



Radio Stations Beg for Cash

The following story on WSJ.com caught my attention: 

Commercial Radio Stations Beg for Cash http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124018182064932917.html

Some commercial stations are trying the public radio model of listener donations as ad revenue falls. Take whatever you can get, I say, but it sure smells of desperation. Sustainable?

Gee, iJoe

U.S. soldiers have an interesting new tool to use on the battlefield -- the iPod Touch. From an article on Newsweek.com:
Making sense of the reams of data from satellites, drones and ground sensors cries out for a handheld device that is both versatile and easy to use. With their intuitive interfaces, Apple devices—the iPod Touch and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone—are becoming the handhelds of choice.

Using a commercial product for such a crucial military role is a break from the past. Compared with devices built to military specifications, iPods are cheap. Apple, after all, has already done the research and manufacturing without taxpayer money. The iPod Touch retails for under $230, whereas a device made specifically for the military can cost far more. (The iPhone offers more functionality than the iPod Touch, but at $600 or $700 each, is much more expensive.) Typically sheathed in protective casing, iPods have proved rugged enough for military life.
Read the full story for more interesting details about how they're used in battle.



Q: How cool would it be if a cable or satellite TV provider decided to integrate Twitter or a similar service INTO every channel? A: Really cool. Imagine that on any given channel you have the option to pull up a crawl on screen that shows what other current viewers are saying about the program and lets you add your comments.

Four reasons this makes sense:

1) It would turn each of the 300-400 channels into niche social networks -- much more useful and valuable than just content channels.

2) It changes the TV-watching experience from passive consumption to active participation. This gives the viewer incentive to watch TV live when everyone else is watching instead of recording on DVR, which is threatening TV ad revenue.

3) It should be fairly easy to do. (Much easier than Smell-O-Vision) Providers already have on-demand technology that uniquely serves content to each TV on request. That should be adaptable to let people turn on/off a Twitter bar.

4) First company to do this gains a huge competitive advantage over other Cable/Satellite providers and can reposition against competition from online video services like Hulu.


Man vs. Wild Fail



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The birth of online news

Check out this fascinating video from the archives:



Jamie's first birthday video



Jamie turns 1

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Live by the sword...

This is one of the funnier things on the Internets:



Relive the Cardinals World Series

This one's for Cardinal Nation:

The new MLB network is reairing entire games from the Cardinals' 2006 playoff run. Starting this Saturday, at 3 p.m., with game 7 of the NLCS over the Mets, featuring the leg-breaking Adam Wainwright curveball. After that is Game 1 & 2 of the World Series.

Sunday picks up at 1 p.m. with Game 3, then Games 4 & 5 after. (All times Eastern)

The MLB network is channel 280 on Comcast.



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Put me to bed

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An observation following Missouri's loss to Nebraska yesterday in its Big 12 opener: this team doesn't show up for nationally televised games.

Because I don't live in the home TV market, I look forward to the few times a year that national TV picks up a Mizzou game and I can actually see them. But the two times that has happened this year -- Illinois and Nebraska -- the boys have played awful.

I like to believe they're not really that bad. They're 13-3, after all, with wins over Georgia and Xavier. But all I've seen is two of the three losses. And that means that's all the nation has seen as well.

If they can't play better under spotlight, I can't see the tournament selection committee giving them a break.


Nothing is "free"

You there. Please stop singing. Now.



Marley, and me

The producers of the 'Marley and Me' movie should really stop marketing it as a funny movie about a cute dog.

Seriously, all the promotional clips are about funny dog things. Then you go see the movie and you're not at all prepared for the ending. (Spoiler alert: it covers the whole life from beginning to sad awful end)

It's not a bad movie... the moral is that even the worst-behaved dog in the world is an incredibly loyal friend who will love you unconditionally if you do the same. It is actually a great story, with developed characters and strong acting.

But it isn't two hours of cute cuddly puppies with a warm fizzy ending, even though they market it that way.


Sound asleep

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Jamie climbs the stairs