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.