Sunday, December 31, 2006

Next gen of online comments: in-line comments

I'm late to this party, but if you haven't seen the comment system on Jack Slocum's blog, you gotta. I'm not sure it lends itself to news, since it requires that click to view, but this is still explosive stuff.

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The post-intrepreneurship Medium Run

Mike rediscovers the first law of blogging: never promise anything. If you say you've got three posts in the works, you won't write a thing for months. If you say you're going to type up your final thoughts on a seminar you went to, the file will sit permanently unfinished on your laptop's desktop. And if you say you're going to post something tomorrow, you'll have an existential crisis, quit your job and go to work as a direct-to-print reporter for a paper that doesn't even post its content until noon.

It wasn't actually much of a crisis, but a couple weeks ago I did leave the Daily News of Longview for the Columbian of Vancouver, a family-owned paper down the road that does some things online very well and others pretty clumsily. But it won't be my job to worry about that.

I don't expect to stop thinking or writing about the Web, but I'm abandoning the pretense of regular updates here.

Leaving the front lines always comes with a sense of loss and guilt, I guess. My previously mentioned friend David linked to a Guy Kawaski post that hit home:

From the outside looking in, entrepreneurs think intrapreneurs have it made: ample capital, infrastructure (desks, chairs, Internet access, secretaries, lines of credit, etc), salespeople, support people, and an umbrella brand.

Guess again. Intrapreneurs don’t have it better—at best, they simply have it different.

I can do without the chair, but I'll miss the capital. Increasingly, though, my hopes for the future of online news lie away from capital. In the meantime, I just want to learn how to write.

See you around.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Let readers see (and edit) their own data

Work's been heavy lately. Tomorrow, a post on triaging limited programming resources. (As if there's some other kind...) Today, a quick suggestion for winning trust: let readers access their own usage data.

Job one, of course, is to start collecting readers' usage data. Seriously. Let readers know about it, tell them how they'll benefit, let them opt in or out, but start it right away and do it any way you can.

Job two is inspired by this Fredshouse brainstorm (courtesy Lifehacker): Google should create a digital privacy tool for all its users that would let them view, delete and set expiration dates for all data that's collected about them.

We should do that, too.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Not the feed you were looking for?

Move along; move along.

If your feed's been acting up in the last week, it's not your fault or imagination -- I've been upgrading to the new Blogger Beta in order to add features like topic tags (below every post), improved archives (at right) and peekaboo summaries (rather than always sending you to a separate page to read the full post). Thanks for your patience.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Newspapers should be classifieds clearinghouses

Everybody and his brother's startup has a free classified service these days. Even if you're ignoring all but the bigger players -- Craigslist, Base, Edgeio, eBay -- who can keep track?

Hint: they're black and white and read in large but ever-decreasing quantities.

For the moment, newspapers in the smallest markets should probably still be trying to minimize the content that leaks onto competitors' sites. But in mid-size markets (and, before long, in the smaller ones) papers can keep offering value to classified advertisers by offering a service the big boys don't: syndication of your ad throughout the Internet. Anybody who pays for a classified should get it listed on all the free sites in addition to the print edition and the newspaper's Web site.

Three startups called Mpire, vFlyer and Postlets are trying to make this service into an entire business, the
New York Times reports today. (While they're at it, they check your spelling and suggest an effective layout.)

It's not clear whether these guys are going to make money for such a relatively simple service. But if newspapers can seed their ads into both the Web-savvy and Web-illiterate markets, they'll be saving their clients a lot of time.

No time for the staff to do all these postings, you say? Well, I happen to know of three fledgling Web sites who might make great partners for your classified department...

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Closing the software gap

Can newspapers maintain competitive software on a smaller, less Soviet scale than Tom Mohr would have us believe? Here are two signs that a few folks still think it's worth a try.

1) Reviewing the API's Newspaper Next study, Susan Mernit name-checks the two bits of software small newspapers probably need most:

- a self-serve ad platform
- a simple local listings service

And she wants it done in open source, so we can all share & improve. Right on, sister. (Tx Will Sullivan.)

2) The Des Moines Register is searching for a local search editor. Bully. A dozen such "editors" won't do squat until the software is in place, but once it is, no set of editorial duties need more attention at mid-size metros, I think. (And nobody is better poised to see the benefits of that software than Gannett. Let's cross our fingers, k?)

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

PR and its hopes for an online future

Small is nimble. Small is friendly. Small can get by on the seat of its pants. Newsrooms that can be walked across in less than a minute will continue to see smaller internal benefits of IT innovation than bigger papers. So why bother keeping up with the bleeding edge of Web standards?

How about this: so you can spend less time retyping your damn press releases?

Over in the PR industry, the fight is on over press release 2.0. This week, the heartbreakingly idealistic Social Media Club (they're trying to establish standards among social Web practices) formed a Media Release Working Group with the goal of introducing a common set of tags to separate the traditional parts of a release: 5 W's, CEO headshot, self-congratulatory quotes, and so forth.

Once that information's organized, it can be distributed to reporters, who'll be able to quickly or automatically arrange the raw information in the release and slap a lede on top.

Enhancing the 75-year-old (?) "release" format, if you will. See my last post on the need to chunk up the data in our own stories.

I'm extrapolating here from one of the group's members, Tom "my son found lonelygirl15" Foremski, who called for these changes back in February. (But see Kevin Dugan's response, noting that markup standards won't solve all the problems with press releases.)

Of course, this'll only clear the way for robot journalists. (Tx Romenesko.) The presence of two members of the working group -- Market Wire and BusinessWire -- make it clear which reporting sector has the most to gain here.

But seriously: new information standards will give newspapers both external and internal efficiency gains. And that's a few more minutes we can invest in the work that really matters: finding out how the hell the release might affect our readers.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Holovaty: We're building databases for the future, not the present

As you may have heard, a fellow named Adrian Holovaty has a Big Idea, and it's a really good one: newspaper information needs to be updated for the digital age by storing it not only in the hundred-year-old "story" format, but in little database chunks. What's the business model? He's quick to say he doesn't know, but his answer this week to one concern should be comforting to data compilers with small audiences.

Here's Adrian's line: if you've lifted a few words out of your story and flagged them in a way that a computer can recognize -- if a computer can indentify your story's "who" and "where" -- then you're setting yourself up to someday ask a computer to map all those "who"s against, say, a database of political donors, or real estate purchasers, or sources. It's the difference between Fisher-Price and Lego.

His most visible work at the Post has been stuff like the wonderfully nichey political ads database. But in a long blog post this week, he reminds us that mere newsy databases aren't the endgame -- the greater purpose isn't serving today's reader, but laying the ground for future remixes of the data.

If you store everything on your Web site as a news article, the Web site is not necessarily hard to use. Rather, it's a problem of lost opportunity. ... That Web site cannot do the cool things that readers are beginning to expect.

That's a bit of encouragement for small papers considering similar projects in the face of minimal pageviews. (Squint. You see that? Wagging in the distance? It's the long tail!)

It's also some motivation to keep that data well-scrubbed: more's at stake here than Saturday's paper.

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Inky fingers, sandy toes

(Photo courtesy jonofpob)

Well, Labor Day is gone, and that means it's the end of The Medium Run's, er, unannounced summer vacation.

Honestly, it's an old story: expectations too heavy, news consumption too low, distractions too many. We're rolling out a two-pronged strategy for changing the story this fall, gentle reader:

1) More ad-hoc updates (with news pegs!) during the week. See the VERY NEXT POST for such an effort.
2) Below the fold, I dare to lay out a long-term schedule for future weekend posts.

This weekend (9/9): the long-awaited conclusion of my Poynter notes.
Next weekend (9/16): the unique ad economics of print, broadcast and Web, and why they matter to content.
After that (9/23): the brand, and why local newspapers need it so.
After that (9/30): a comprehensive look at business models available to local newspaper sites.

As for 9/37 and on beyond Zebra, we'll see.

Welcome back.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

A subscription model that won't compete with print: the blindspot

Tear down the wall? At the Times, too early to say. But in the next few years, small papers should build their subscription strategy around this question: what on the Web is a substitute for print, and what's not?

A model I like, but have never seen, is actually the inverse of the most common one. Instead of a permanent archive wall, it's an ever-advancing blindspot.

For the next ten-to-15 years or so -- until computers become almost as portable/cheap/comfortable as newspapers, that is -- small newspapers should prioritize new editorial Web features with the following checklist:

1) Can it be done with information we already collect?
2) If not, can it be done with information whose collection is easily automated? (either through user contribution or computer algorithm)
3) Can it be presented in a way that is only possible or convenient online, so as to avoid substituting for the print product?

From this angle, charging for archives looks like the dumbest possible formula. We've all got colossal electronic archives. All we need to make them useful is a good search feature. And here's the thing: archives don't substitute for print at all. What subscriber saves two-week old newspapers for use as reference material? Online archives only add value. A free, well-ordered archive for a local newspaper would take it a long way toward its eventual goal: becoming the primary information site for its community.

Yesterday's news is different. In most cities, you can get yesterday for 50 cents in the newspaper, or on the Web for free. Print and Web become substitute products -- and get moreso with every redesign.

Okay, what about today's news? I lean toward the Spokane model -- breaking news and comment should be free. They're dynamic. They can't be done in print. They're dealing with radio and TV competitors.

You can see by now what this all means: the sensible place for a subscription requirement is content from, say, the last three days. Farther back than that, it should all be free again.

I've never seen it done. I'd love to hear why not.

(Also: Yes, yes, I know, I should be preparing and posting my own archive of three-quarters-written entries instead of making a new one. Sorry, chum.)

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Department of Broken Dreams, vol. I

Incidentally, if the Tribune does in fact sell the Tower, I'm gonna have to start punchin'.

Dennis FitzSimons? You're on notice.

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What if the AP had cut off Google News at the pass?

My extensive notes from the epiphanic third day of the Poynter seminar are on the way, honest. (I spent the weekend joyously buried in Django, if you must know.) Meanwhile, here's a neat think piece from Forbes's Paul Maidment, who's out for some counterfactual fun:

There were attempts by newspapers as long ago as the early 1990s to pool news services and classifieds online in the face of a common enemy. But they were felled for the most part by old rivalries and narrow minds. ... being a notable exception.

What was missing then was audacious imagination. The U.S. industry already had a national news co-op, the Associated Press. Could it have held the space now occupied by Google News and Yahoo! News and done the job better as it both creates and aggregates news? As well as the stories written by its staff, one-fifth to one-quarter of the stores carried on the AP wire come from its owner newspapers but remains within the gated community of its members.

There was no call to throw open the gates.

(Tx Jon Dube.)

I assume we can all balk a bit at the idea of letting the nation's nonprofit news collective mutate into an online megaportal. (Though something similar isn't such a far-off dream, I'd add.)

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sun Tzu says: social networks before A/V

A chorus of my peers yesterday afternoon failed to overturn a pet iconoclasm of mine: unless they're affiliated with radio or TV stations, most local newspapers should not be dumping lots of money into audio and video. It doesn't dovetail with our current work, and it dovetails perfectly with the work of our biggest news competitors' -- local radio and TV stations.

Video is more compelling than print, no question. And newspapers have the dominant local Web sites. (I desperately hope we retain them.) So why shouldn't we introduce video in order to serve and retain our visitors?

Because, in short, it's not our specialty. We've got newsrooms of word reporters. We can find a bunch of great ways to reorganize those words for the Web. We can arrange data in nifty graphics and tables -- numbers are a lot like words, really. We cannot, without a lot of training and capital investment, put up a short video of reasonable quality.

If video, like interactive graphics, were a new medium, that'd be different. Nobody has yet institutionalized the delivery of infographics for profit. But video and audio are hugely profitable and masterfully done by very close competitors.

And yet -- those competitors aren't simply better than us. They're better at different things. The customizable print experience (more on that soon) has given us a newsgathering depth that broadcasters can't match. We should build on our strengths, not push to provide redundant video services that local broadcasters could do better if they merely lifted a finger on the Web.

I'm not saying that no newspapers should be experimenting with this stuff. But smaller local papers, working with smaller scale economies, have higher priorities, like catching up on search, organizing data into parcels and improving social network functions.

One powerful counterargument that wasn't quite enough to bring me around to video: our competition here isn't really local TV; it's the rest of the non-local-news media landscape.

There are surely times when video, especially, is so compelling that it demands to be included. But we should remember that we can't, as they say, deliver all things to all people. We should pick our battles.

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Tips from Poynter, day two

Four neat things I learned today:

1) The Roanoke Times has a kick-ass javascript bug above every story, popping up options to email the story or post it to various aggregators. Geek cred for including Just one problem: to the reader, and ma.gnolia aren't "sharing" services. They're storing services. Sharing is how we dream of using them, but that isn't their primary value to readers.

2) Online purchasing correlates to wealth and broadband; not so much to age.

3) Guidelines for user-content submissions should be written aspirationally: "we will do our best to." Laying this out may actually help us in libel cases, since their very existence helps verify our regard for the truth, etc.

4) Soundslides is apparently everybody's favorite $40 slideshow editing app. Two problems: it outputs in Flash and only runs on Macs.

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Poynter, day two: pageviews per daily unique user

These come from the March and April traffic reports of most of my fellow attendees. The biggest site is; the smallest,

Oregon Public Broadcasting: 9.2
Chicago Tribune: 6.9
The Press (Canterbury, New Zealand): 5.2 (The Press's parent brand): 8.5
Tampa Bay Online: 1.1
Orange County Register: 5
San Diego Union Tribune: 10.8
Roanoke Times: 3
Arizona Republic: 1.1
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 5.8
Boston Globe: 9.3 (Manchester Union Leader): 10
Winston-Salem Journal: 6.8 (Roanoke Times): 48.6 (!!!)
South Bend Tribune: 2.9
Providence Journal: 12.9
WATE-TV (Knoxville, Tenn.): 3.3
Washington Post: 5.7
Rockford Register-Star: 18.3 (!)

I'm reluctant to post raw numbers because a) they might be confidential, and b) I'm sleepy. Two takeaways, though: small markets like the New River Valley, Manchester, Rockford tend to the high side (read: exclusive content, dedicated users, low ratio of drive-by traffic), as do respected, expensive operations like the ProJo's, WaPo's, and

Finally, let's all remember: excepting Rockford and the New River Valley, these figures are dwarfed -- dwarfed by the "clickthrough" rate of practically any reader of our print editions.

Online publication won't support our newsgathering until it can hold eyeballs for more than four minutes.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Poynter, day one: Bundling and portals

The biggest question I have about the local news business is the extent to which we can preserve the bundles that have worked so well with our print product. For example: Jane buys the Longview newspaper for its real estate ads. Jim for its movie times. Julia for its op-ed page.

Between them, Jane and Jim subsidize Julia's op-ed page, and vice versa, keeping the quality on all three high even when one goes through a slack period. This has always been the case. See what I mean?

Offering and promoting RSS will surely accelerate the destruction of our portal. But can unbundling be slowed? Stopped? Nope, says Jay Small, one of Poynter's teachers this week:

"The new should therefore be maybe 50 different products, instead of one bundle. And even if you lump all 50 together, they shouldn't combine and bake up into what we know as a newspaper.

"Which 50 products make sense? Ah, if I knew that, I'd have them out there already. The one thing I know is the same 50 won't work in every newspaper market. And we better get started figuring out which 50 we need, one or two at a time."

I'm sure we'll return to this issue soon.


In related news, Jupiter Research found that most young folks start looking for news from portals like Yahoo. (Tx Will Sullivan.)

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Poynter, day one: The dangers of print-bashing

It's too easy, at geeky powows like this one, to merely nod solemnly to each other about the death of print. I don't mean to say we should be blindly optimistic -- just that over-the-top pessimism breeds complacency. We online news folks can't afford to get all The Day After Tomorrow with our Cassandra duties. Two such cases:

1) For all their faults, today's print newspapers remain the most successful business model the industry has ever produced. It's nothing to be abandoned wholesale. (More on this in the next post.)

2) Even more importantly, we should never say "Look, the Web, unlike print, shows high approval ratings among youngsters! Let us therefore expect future profit from our Web site!" Platform isn't the issue -- features are. The next generation of readers is not lured to their desktops by the glow of the cathode rays or the comfort of the chairs involved. They're going to the Internet for its features: timeliness, personalization and interaction. If newspapers want to reap the benefits of young folks' love for the Web, they need to start delivering content in Webby ways, not print ones.

It's not a long list: hyperlinks, multimedia, social interaction, customization, searchability. (Right around the corner: portability.) Online news people absolutely need to push tbese basic Web concepts onto their sites. If they don't, newspaper Web sites aren't going to last a day longer than their parent papers.

As the New York Times reminded us last month, reproducing your full print product on the Web is pointless if it's the same as paper. I'd rather have the newsprint between my fingers, thanks.

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Tips from Poynter: Day One

Three short things I learned in my first evening at Poynter's seminar for Online News Managers.

1)'s forum moderators have a "bozo button" at their disposal. Once they hit it, a forum troll who they've marked as a "bozo" continues to see his posts appearing on the site -- but nobody else sees them. Mitigates the threat of re-registration by banned users. Dirty. Genius.

2) Local TV sites get a big traffic jump at lunchtime, because people at work can get away with (or justify) watching video over the lunch hour.

3) Generally, the percentage breakdown of technology adopters is as follows (not cumulative): 2.5 percent innovators (e.g. RSS); 13.5 percent early adopters (e.g. blog readers); 34 percent early majority (i.e. broadband subscribers); 34 percent late majority (i.e. Internet users); 16 percent laggards (i.e. your aunt Susan). But: let's not forget the wealth that drives all these differences, eh? Nobody who cares about universal access to technology drives onward on the assumption that everybody will eventually follow.

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New: subscribe by email

If you haven't yet jumped on the RSS train (see the right column for details), the good folks at FeedBurner are now powering an email subscription to The Medium Run (again, right column). Here's their privacy policy, and here's mine: I will never give your information to anybody, or send anything other than requested blog content to any subscriber's address.

(That felt nice.)

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

The need for newspapers and the struggle against harvesting

I've had a difficult few weeks at work, and I'm not sure if this is good or bad medicine, but it's something. Reading John Carroll's address to the ASNE convention on Wednesday made me cry, then it made me want to scream the whole thing. Instead, it's below.

(This is reprinted without permission. If this bothers you, let me know and it'll go down. I pulled it from the PDF version at the">Joan Shorenstein Center.)

Last Call at the ASNE Saloon
a speech delivered by
John S. Carroll

2006 American Society of Newspaper Editors convention
Seattle, Washington
Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Copyright © 2006 John S. Carroll

Yesterday was a glorious spring day here in Seattle, and we heard from Gary Pruitt and Dean Singleton, who are spending billions of dollars to buy up newspapers. The skies were sunny, and so were their forecasts.

Today, the clouds have rolled in – and, appropriately, so have I, bearing antidotes to yesterday’s glad tidings.

As Charlotte indicated, I’ve been taking a break from journalism. There’s a lot to be said for taking a break, but I should tell you: I miss the newsroom. I miss my friends, and I miss the adrenaline rush of the daily miracle.

I confess, too, to a pang of guilt at being away from the newsroom during a difficult time. I’m glad to be here in Seattle. It’s wonderful to be among editors again.

I’ve been a member of ASNE since 1979, the year I became editor of the Lexington Herald. I cannot say, frankly, that sitting through speeches such as the one I’m about to inflict on you has been the highlight of my education. But I can say that other, less formal activities of this Society – particularly the learned debates at the hotel bar – have been richly illuminating. What a wonderful ritual, this nocturnal seminar! I’m sure we’ll be at it again tonight. The saloons of Seattle beckon.

Like many of you, I’ve been worrying lately. What will become of us? More important, what will become of our newspapers? More important still, what will become of the kind of public-service journalism that newspapers produce?

And, vastly more important than all that: What will the public know – and what will the public not know – if our poorly understood, and often unappreciated, craft perishes in the Darwinian jungle?

Quite a few of the people we hear from these days – the talk-show hosts, the bloggers, the political operatives, the marketers, the flacks of all sorts – dream wistful dreams of a world without newspapers. What power they would have! How blissfully simple their lives would be! And, it could actually happen. Let’s imagine...

If, at some point in America’s newspaper-free future, the police decide that the guilt or innocence of murder suspects can be determined perfectly well by beating them until somebody confesses, who will sound the alarm, as the Philadelphia Inquirer did in 1977? Or, if those federal scientists who tell our doctors what drugs and what dosages are best for us are secretly allowed to take salaries and stock options from drug companies, how will we know it, if the Los Angeles Times is not there to tell us, as it did in 2003? Or, if some future president secretly decides to nullify the law and spy on American citizens without warrants, who – if the New York Times falls by the wayside – will sound the warning?

More routinely, who will make the checks at City Hall? Who, in cities and towns across America, will go down to the courthouse every day, or to the police station? Who will inspect the tens of thousands of politicians who seek to govern? Who – amid America’s great din of flackery and cant -- will tell us in plain language what’s actually going on?

Since I left the Los Angeles Times, I’ve been thinking about our craft and about the commerce that sustains it. With support from my patrons, the Knight Foundation and the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, I’ve been standing back from newsroom life, trying to take in the larger picture.

I had hoped to have it neatly wrapped up by now, but the big picture is full of complexities, and it changes daily. I don’t have the big picture yet. But I do have some important parts of it. Consider this talk, then, an interim report – a collection of significant fragments.


The economic rules that govern the newspaper business have changed. We all know this. The old business model is defunct. Under the old model, owners got rich and newsrooms became juggernauts. That golden age is over.

With the advent of the Web, our rotary presses, those massive machines that once conferred near-monopolies on their owners, are looking more and more like the last steam engine.

Young readers are going online and not coming back. Circulation revenues are dwindling. The equivalent of circulation revenues on the Web is negligible. Circulation itself is falling. Ad revenues are weak – not a good sign in a growing economy – and Web-based competitors are stealing our advertisers. Some of these competitors are even helping themselves to our stories and our photographs, which we have produced at great expense.

Then there’s a more subtle problem, a crisis of the soul.

Every journalist believes that he or she works, ultimately, for the reader – not for the editor, or for the publisher, or for the corporation, or for those opaque financial institutions that hold the stock. We all know journalists who have lost their jobs on principle. They have refused to kill important stories, or to write glowingly about politicians or advertisers who don’t deserve it. They have done this because their first loyalty is to the reader. Whole newsrooms, on occasion, have taken the same principled stand. At the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, the staffs erupted into revolt during the Staples and Jayson Blair scandals. Those staffs had been riled by a variety of grievances. But what lent overwhelming moral force to their cause was the flagrant betrayal of the reader.

We work, however, within large organizations that hold a different view of duty. Our corporate superiors are sometimes genuinely perplexed to find people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder. What makes these people tick? they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense.

The conflict between those who serve the reader and those who serve the shareholder might seem a bit abstract, but it’s important. It affects the way we see ourselves as editors, and the way we behave. It inhibits us when we ought to be bold.

A generation ago, we at the ASNE convention might have encountered such formidable editors as Gene Roberts, Ben Bradlee, Abe Rosenthal and Gene Patterson. With all due respect, there is no such pride of lions roaming among us today. This is not entirely our fault. Our jobs are harder than theirs. Our papers are shrinking, and so is our confidence.

How long has it been since an editor was so rash as to cite public service in justifying a budget? You might as well ask to be branded with a scarlet N, for naïve. Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome. Even outside the corporation we have lost stature. We might see ourselves as public servants, but does the public see us that way?
To some of you, these words may seem overly harsh. But it is important that we understand our position clearly, without illusion, because we have a mission ahead of us, and we need to be rigorously clear-headed.

Our mission is more daunting than that of our predecessors. It is not merely to produce good stories. It is not merely to save our newspapers. It is – and this may sound grandiose – to save journalism itself. It is to ensure the existence, long into the future, of a large, independent, principled, questioning, deep-digging cadre of journalists in America, regardless of what happens to our newspapers.

You and I know it won’t be easy.


Now, from the bag of fragments I’ve been gathering in recent months, I’d like to pull out a few samples. I offer them in the form of five questions, each of which I will attempt to answer.

Question No. 1: Are newspaper editors really necessary?

It will not surprise you to hear that there is a backlash these days against people who presume to be gatekeepers. That, of course, means us.

We’re all familiar by now with the vocabulary of the argument. Paternalism, as we know, is dead and should never have existed in the first place. Disintermediated news is news without intermediation, which is to say, news that’s not selected by editors. And, finally, markets are capable of making better decisions about news than editors.

We’re getting this from two sides. First, there are the Web people, who have ingeniously figured out how to decide what’s important by tabulating the collective wisdom of online readers. How galling for us – to be replaced by an algorithm.

Second, we’re getting it from our own corporate leaders, who believe in market research. Why not just edit by referendum? they wonder. Why not just ask people what they want and give it to them?

I am happy to respond to this critique, and positively overjoyed to be doing so here in the city of Seattle. For it was here in Seattle that the readers spoke loud and clear last year about the kind of news they wanted. In case you missed it, the most-visited story on the Seattle Times Web site in the year 2005 concerned a man – and I’ll try to put this delicately – a man who paid the ultimate price ... for having an illicit relationship ... with a horse.

There you have it. You don’t need to look any further to see where editing by referendum takes you. It takes you to tabloid-land, to Angelina Jolie, to Brad Pitt, to the lurid murder of the week, to campaigns to save Christmas from imaginary enemies, to mass-produced political vituperation, to a whole cornucopia of sexual indiscretions, and – in Seattle, at least – to bestiality.

The question here is whether a newspaper ought to lead or to follow. Should a newspaper actually stand for anything? Or should it be a transparent vessel for the truisms and vulgarities of the age?

My view is that America already has enough cheesy consumer products. And let me add a corollary: I think a newspaper should be willing, on certain occasions, to offend even its most loyal readers.

Back in the Eighties, the Lexington Herald-Leader offended an entire state by disclosing widespread cheating in the University of Kentucky basketball program. Seemingly, that was a mistake. Angry citizens boycotted the paper’s advertising and circulation. A bomb scare emptied the building. Someone fired a rifle shot into the pressroom. The electronic media mounted months of abuse, including a talk show whose topic was, and I quote, “How Can We Destroy the Newspaper?”

But the newspaper was not destroyed. Far from it. In circulation and in profits, the Herald-Leader flourished during the Eighties as never before or since. That’s because, over the long haul, people don’t buy the newspaper because it serves them pabulum, or because they think the editor is a nice guy. They buy it because it tells them significant things they don’t already know.

In marketing, the idea is to manage the number of complaints down to zero. That’s fine if you’re making toasters, but a newspaper that gets no complaints is a dead newspaper.

So, to Question No. 1 – are newspaper editors really necessary? – the answer is: Yes, absolutely.

Question No. 2: If newspapers disappear, should the public care?
Never have the American people been more lavishly supplied with news. Yahoo, Google, and a whole galaxy of Web sites – not to mention radio, television, newspapers, podcasts, cell-phones and Blackberries – bombard us with journalism.
But where does it come from?

Well, some news announces itself – a tsunami, for example. The rest of it is dug up by reporters.

When I was a young reporter at the Baltimore Sun, I viewed my job as turning over rocks. Usually there was nothing under a given rock, so I’d move on to the next rock. It was humble work, but every now and then it would produce something worthwhile. I remember, for example, visiting a potential source again and again for months without getting a thing. Then, one day, he gave me a tip. The resulting story saved hundreds of thousands of Maryland citizens from a 26 percent increase in their health insurance rates.

This kind of reporting is unglamorous, inefficient and expensive – and in America it is done almost entirely by newspapers. In my reporting days, I almost never saw radio or television reporters turning over rocks.

Newspapers became the nation’s rock-turners because they made enough money to employ large staffs. Go to just about any city or town in America, and you’ll find that the newspaper has more reporters than all other media combined.
This is our role: Newspapers dig up the news. Others repackage it.

Have you noticed that the new media, even those as rich as Yahoo and Google, are not creating their own staffs of reporters? Recently I was amused by all the publicity Yahoo got for creating its own multi-media foreign staff, which consisted of one poor guy lugging all his own equipment.

The blogs, noisy as they are, have virtually no reporters. They may be keen critics, or assiduous fact checkers, but do they add materially to the nation’s supply of original reporting? No, they don’t.

I wish I could tell you precisely how much of America’s news originates in newspapers, but apparently there’s been no definitive study. So, instead, I’ve been asking smart people to make estimates. So far, nobody has given me a figure lower than 80 percent.

If, then, in the worst case, newspapers fade away, and if nobody else steps forward to provide a new army of rock-turners, what will the American public know in the future? What stories will go untold? What issues unraised? What will serious-minded people have to talk about?

The answer to Question No. 2, then, is: Yes, the public should care if newspapers disappear.

Question No. 3: What is the strategy of the newspaper industry?
It was heartening when McClatchy emerged victorious in the bidding for Knight Ridder. McClatchy’s CEO, Gary Pruitt, bases much of his strategy on good journalism and on optimism about the electronic future. This is a plan we can all understand. Whether it will actually work under the new economics of our business is not known. We should all be lighting candles for McClatchy.
We should be lighting candles, too, for the families that control the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. In difficult times, they have persisted in upholding traditions of journalistic excellence.

Those papers and most others have created electronic editions, which are crucial to the long-term survival of newspaper journalism. Revenue from those editions is growing at an impressive rate, but the absolute numbers are still small.
These are strategies for building, strategies that preserve journalism as the core of the business. They fall into the category of investment strategies.
Now let’s turn to another kind of strategy, the opposite of an investment strategy. It is called a harvest strategy.

I first heard the phrase “harvest strategy” in the Nineties, when it was briefly mentioned in a board meeting at the Baltimore Sun. I was the Sun’s editor then, and merely hearing those two words gave me the willies.

I sensed what they meant. They meant milking a declining business for all the cash it can produce until it dies. Much later I looked up “harvest strategy” in a business textbook, and my suspicion was right.

The idea of liquidating the Baltimore Sun in this way was unthinkable to me. This was the paper of Mencken. This was the paper that got the story when Samuel F. B. Morse’s sent his historic telegram. By the way, you won’t believe this: The Sun got that story but somehow managed to miss the quote that would ring through the ages: “What hath God wrought?”

Like all newspapers, the Sun was fallible, but it was also the voice of a city, and of a state, published daily since 1837. How could anyone even think of “harvesting” it?

For the record, I am unaware of any formal decision to harvest the Sun or any other paper. Further, I’ve been advised by those who know more about finance than I do that a frustrated owner would do better these days by selling a paper than by running it into the ground.

And yet, symptoms of harvest are staring us in the face. They include a low rate of investment, fewer employees, fewer readers, falling stock prices and, most especially, high profit margins.

In 2005, our troubled industry reported operating margins averaging 19.3 percent. That’s double the average among Fortune 500 companies. These high profits were achieved by relentless cost-cutting, which is rendering newspapers less valuable to their readers each year, and less able to compete.

Many of you have had the unhappy task of laying off or buying out your newsroom colleagues. This is tough duty – especially when there’s no inspirational reason for doing it. It would help if there were some clear strategy for a brighter future. To a journalist, merely hitting some short-term profit target does not make it all seem worthwhile.

I’m still hoping that newspapers, like certain troubled industries before them, will succeed in finding a new business model. This is a matter of urgency. Each year that we fail, our army of rock-turners will shrink. Without them, there will be no reason to read newspapers.

So, in response to Question No. 3 – what is the strategy of the newspaper industry? – the answer is that there are two strategies, and they are at war with each other: There’s the investment strategy, which optimistically builds something for the future. Then there’s the pessimistic harvest strategy, which – either deliberately or by default -- drains all the available cash from a business before it collapses.

Question No. 4: What do the current owners want from their newspapers?
There was a time, some of you may recall, when owners were identifiable human beings. We’ve all heard colleagues say, “All this would never have happened if Jack Knight – or Otis Chandler, or Barry Bingham – still owned the place.” Unfortunately, the old owners are gone.

If they did return, they’d be amazed at what’s happened – and not just to their newspapers. They’d be amazed at what’s happened to the very idea of ownership.
Who are the owners today? Have you ever actually met one?

In order to track down the owners, you’ve got to knock on doors at such places as Private Capital Management of Naples, Florida, or Ariel Capital Management of Chicago, or Southeastern Asset Management of Memphis.

If you succeed in getting past the receptionist, you’ll find a scene not unlike a newsroom -- people talking on phones or tapping away at computers. These are highly motivated people -- intelligent people working in a disciplined fashion. Much of their work, unlike ours, is mathematical. The most accomplished of the math people are known as “quants.”

Like journalists, these fund managers are seekers, trying to find out things before their competitors do. They monitor hundreds, perhaps thousands, of companies – franchise companies that create Tex-Mex restaurants, perhaps, or mining interests in Bolivia, or chains of nursing homes in the South. And, among all these, companies that operate newspapers. All are given equal consideration; everything depends on the numbers.

Until recently, the ongoing conversation between the fund managers and our corporate leaders has been conducted out of public earshot. I’m told that contact has been frequent and that there is only one real subject: profits.

Lately, however, the funds have become more open in expressing themselves. Bruce Sherman, of Private Capital Management, publicly demanded that Knight Ridder be sold – and it was. More recently, Morgan Stanley has been trying to torpedo the two-tier stock structure at the New York Times, which would bring an end to generations of family leadership at America’s foremost paper.

The apparent frustration at the funds hints at future instability in ownership--perhaps even the unraveling of a process that started forty years ago.

That process began when local owners sold their papers to corporations. For a time, the corporations seemed to be in command. Business was good, and many of the papers grew, both financially and journalistically. Then, as business got tougher, power began to migrate from the corporations to the funds. We are now in a post-corporate phase of ownership.

Over the same forty years, we have seen a narrowing of the purpose of the newspaper in the eyes of its owner. Under the old local owners, a newspaper’s capacity for making money was only part of its value. Today, it is everything. Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to its community, that it is beholden to the public.

With the shrinking of the newspaper’s social purpose, we have seen a shrinking of the newspaper journalist. It has happened slowly and subtly, but, if you stand back, as I have lately, it’s all too clear.

The old, local owners were far from perfect. Some of them were good, most were mediocre, and some were downright evil. But, forty years later, local ownership is looking better every day. Someday, I suspect, when we look back on these forty years, we will wonder how we allowed the public good to be so deeply subordinated to private gain.

It is tempting to find a goat here, to single out some individual and heap blame on him or her for the decline of our business. That might be cathartic, but the problem is bigger than that. It is structural. Most of the people in the corporations, and most of the people in the funds, are doing their jobs by the book. Restoring a balance between financial performance and public duty is probably impossible under this form of ownership.

So, in response to Question No. 4 – What do the current owners want from their newspapers? – the answer could not be simpler: Money. That’s it.

And finally, Question No. 5: Will we see other forms of ownership?

With newspapers losing their luster in the financial world, big changes are likely. Some could be good, some could be bad. Here’s one of the good ones.

I have edited newspapers in three cities – Lexington, Baltimore and Los Angeles – and in all three cities I’m seeing a new phenomenon: Local people seeking to buy the paper back from the corporations. I’ve spoken with several of them. These are serious people – sophisticated people with real money.

Unlike corporate owners, these people talk about the importance of the paper to the community. They talk about restoring its pride. They talk about investing in journalism, especially in local coverage. They see the newspaper as a fallen angel, and they say they’d be willing to accept a lower financial return, which would allow the paper to breathe again.

Yes, it seems too much to hope for.

One obstacle, I’m told, is capital gains taxes. If a corporation sells a newspaper for cash, it will probably have to pay a lot of the money to the government. If, on the other hand, the corporation sells to another corporation in a stock swap or merger, those taxes are largely deferred. In this way, the deck is stacked against the local buyer; the local buyer would have to pay a lot more than the corporate buyer in order to give the seller the same financial result.

But perhaps the tax problem can be solved, or at least mitigated. That, after all, is what tax lawyers are for.

So to Question No. 5 – will we ever see new forms of ownership? – the answer is: Almost certainly yes. Will they be better, or worse? Nobody knows.


Not long after I became editor in Lexington, I was taken to lunch by John S. Knight himself.

I was young then, and I tried to impress him with all the things I was doing to improve the paper. He listened politely, offered a comment or two, and then, when we were parting, gave me some gentle advice.

“John,” he said, “don’t forget to have a little fun.”

Fun in our business may not be as abundant as we’d like these days, but it’s still attainable. Yes, it’s true that newspapers are mortally threatened by the Web. It is also true that we enter this struggle weakened by a form of ownership that disdains our beliefs and bleeds our newspapers of badly needed resources. But to be editor of a newspaper is still a privilege and often a joy.

It may be of some comfort to remember that we are not alone. Recently I read an article by a medical doctor whose complaint about corporate medicine echoed ours about corporate journalism. This doctor resented the assembly-line discipline of the seven-minute patient visit. And he deplored the corporate tendency to speak of patients as “customers.”

To a principled doctor, the patient is not just some stranger who pays money for seven minutes of service. The patient is an object of reverence. Doctors have been referring to the patient as the patient since the Fourth Century B.C., and they have done so in Greek, in Latin and in all the tongues of the civilized world.

I have every confidence that, over time, the doctors will prevail, and the patient will remain the patient. The doctors will prevail because they have a clear and enduring set of values.

We journalists have a set of values, too, but ours are newer and, unfortunately, much fuzzier. The journalist’s equivalent of the patient is the reader, or the public. But does the public believe that?

Recently there have been efforts to clarify our beliefs, and to put them into plain language. A notable effort in this regard is the book The Elements of Journalism by our colleagues Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.

It is important for us to understand, in clear English, what, exactly, a journalist is, and what a journalist is not. It is important for us to live by those beliefs, too, and to condemn those who use the trappings of journalism to engage in marketing or propaganda. And, finally, it is important for us to explain to the public why journalism –- real journalism, practiced in good faith -– is absolutely essential to a self-governing nation.

This is a cause that is larger than us and larger than our newspapers. It gives meaning to our labors in a difficult time.

Yes, it is possible that our newspapers will be further diminished, perhaps even lost altogether. And yes, it is even possible that the great bartender at the ASNE saloon will, someday, sound last call. If that day comes, let it never be said that we meekly drank up and walked away.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Blogging from Poynter Online seminar May 16-19

This whole "conference blogging" thing is obviously too hot for me to resist. I'll be at Poynter's upcoming seminar for online news managers next month, and plan to file at least once a night while I'm there, reporting the best stuff I learned and reflecting on what was said. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, of course, I'll continue to publish as usual.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Practical advice from APME

The other day, the Associated Press Managing Editors put out a practical, accessible cluster of pieces about newspaper Web sites. I especially like the ones about putting your Web site on the offensive and the strong competition to come. More below the fold.

The first advises that newspaper sites:
1) Radically simplify their front-door pages. "Count the links. You probably have 200 or more. It's insane, stupid and lazy. On the web, simplicity sells."
2) Load the site with photos and videos.
3) Let visitors customize.
4) Allow user contributions, but use a heavy-ish hand in editing them.
5) Sometimes, be unpredictable and funny. Change the front-door layout to reflect the news.

I do have qualms with some of these (customization of news content should be done only with a reader's permission; changing home-page layouts should only be done by people who really know what they're doing, usability-wise).

The second lists five sorts of competitors that local papers will face for the first time in the next few years, thanks to users' migration onto the Web:

1) Local broadcast outlets.
2) Big national portals, scaling down to our level.
3) Hyperlocal, user-generated startups, such as Backfence. "They are getting big venture money and we are their prime targets. ... Imagine what will happen when they partner up with cable networks or local weeklies or phone directories or someone else."
4) Local chambers of commerce and the like, creating free, functional search sites. (Good call, man, good call.)
5) Just about anybody with a server, a keyboard, and a lack of caution about libel suits.

The second list, really, is the driving force for the first. Big-city editors are still trying to get used to the end of their monopoly. Small papers need to prepare for competition faster than the big ones did.

(Hat tip:

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

The general-interest breaking news blog

Thursday, I argued that a blog's fundamental features lend itself to two main things: news and speed. Comments, opinions and the rest are just gravy -- they're not unique to the form. Today, I'll build on this, suggesting small newspapers should throw away their preconceptions that blogs must cover niches like local TV listings or the state legislature. In fact, for the hundreds of little U.S. papers who think they can't afford to update their sites midday, a general-interest news blog could be the cheapest, easiest road to the holy grail of Web traffic: dynamic content.

It's true, the notion of a general-interest blog might have offended me until I ran into two examples: the Racine Journal-Times's Racine Report and USA Today's On Deadline.

Look past the RJT's NASCAR aesthetic and USA Today's national scope. What are these guys doing? They're simply delivering news in blog format: latest stuff at the top, older stuff sliding down. The approaches are different -- Racine posts full-length stories as they come in throughout the day, while On Deadline is Web-only content. But the innovation -- that blogs can be nothing more than a quick way to get midday news -- is sound as a bell.

And they're hits. I've talked with the folks who oversee both blogs, and both have been big traffic magnets. How many of the Racine Report's thousands of readers know they're getting their breaking news from a blog? Surely lots don't. What they know is that their news always appears in reverse chronological order -- why, how convenient!

On Deadline's format will be a bit more alien to traditional news readers, but it has its advantages, too: since its writers don't waste time crafting full-length articles, they've built the best place on the Internet to know right away if a big story has broken in the U.S. media. Rather than sift through the fourth rewrite of an AP piece, the heavy Web user can see what's new right away.

Both blogs have downsides, too. The Racine Report is difficult to scan for topics of interest. With 30 posts a day, On Deadline is practical for only the heaviest of users -- and small markets don't have many of those.

Local papers should consider combining the best of these two approaches. Racine has embraced blogs because when they're built on simple, free software like WordPress, they become a quick-and-dirty way to change a Web site. For papers smaller than the RJT (30,000 or so), quick is even more important.

So why not put a breaking news blog front and center on your Web site? Why not ask reporters to post two- to three-sentence summaries of news as it comes in? (Or assign a single staffer to gather tidbits from reporters as they write.) News won't break more than a few times a day in a small market, so you won't be overwhelming your audience of bored office drones. But when each new tidbit comes in, throw that up. Give readers a taste of the adrenaline in a developing story.

Worried about competitors swiping your scoop? Baloney. Save the investigative projects for the morning paper, but when local news breaks, you want readers to know you're the place to go, no matter what. (Just don't be afraid to link to the radio station when it actually beats you.)

And here's an added bonus: you can assure your publisher that the Web content doesn't endanger the print product, because it serves a totally different purpose -- getting the basics out right away -- and therefore a different audience. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine one of those bored office drones lingering over your print article the next morning, seeing how that story they were following at work finally played out.

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Thinking abstractly about blogs

So the news that staff-written blogs can be useful has seeped into most small-town newsrooms. It's just as important, though, for those small newsrooms to know what a blog really is, not just have a vague idea of the ways others seem to use blogs. Understanding the abstract features of a blog -- and the reasons those features have led to the style and content of today's blogosphere -- can help small papers find innovative ways to tweak their blogs for small markets.

(I shudder to think how many times some blogger has taken it upon himself to explain "Just what is a blog?" Dauntless, I plunge on. This time, I'm answering it for small papers, and that's different, see?)

A blog is a Web site where the new stuff appears at the top and the old stuff remains below. That's it; that's all. Other things touted as features of blogs -- user comments, niche content, offsite links -- are features of the World Wide Web, not the blogosphere.

So simple a definition that it's meaningless? No! It's liberating! Don't want to moderate comments? Don't allow them. Don't like hyperlinking to unreliable offsite content? I'd say today's readers understand the risks of the Web, but if you really feel that way, there's no reason not to go it alone on your blog. Can't think of a niche-y topic unique to your area? Hate to break it to you, but you've already got one. By Web standards, local papers are already niche media. If any Web site has useful, unique local news and information, readers will like it. (Just give people a way to find it without having to click on the word "blog," for heaven's sake.)

So should blogs be used for anything you want? No. Blogs do two things very well:

1) Because they're organized simply, they let the reader quickly find the latest entry.

2) Because they uncouple content production and technical expertise, they give a Web site to anybody who can type.

Item 1 lends itself to news, because the latest stuff is important, and to distribution over RSS, because it's easy to aggregate something that updates predictably. Item 2 lends itself to speed, because the update process takes so little footwork.

Wait a minute. Timely news? Isn't that the most important thing newspapers are supposed to be doing already?

In tomorrow's post, I'll discuss an underused idea that would make blogging central to a small newspaper's site without driving away a single reader: a general-interest breaking news blog.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Philip Meyer, prophet

I'm long overdue for an update, and for that I owe you an apology. Several posts are in the works--I'm having trouble keeping my internal editor under control. In the meantime, I'm fascinated by this 1995 Philip Meyer essay on newspaper profitability.

It's about how publicly traded companies are tempted to slash newsrooms, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, blah blah blah. All quite true, and it makes good reading along those lines. But here's the crazy passage:

Whether very many newspapers will spend the money to wholeheartedly practice genuine public journalism remains to be seen. The short-term economic pressures are against them. The first scenario produces visible and immediate rewards while the costs are hidden and distant. The second yields immediate costs and distant benefits. ...

Take the case of a long term-oriented, nurturing company like Knight-Ridder. With total average daily circulation of 3.6 million, its newspapers would bring a total of $6.5 billion if sold separately at an average value of $1,800 per paying reader. (McClatchy paid the Daniels family more than $2,400 per unit of circulation for Raleigh's News & Observer, but Raleigh is a better than average market). With 52.9 million shares outstanding at the 1994-95 high price of $61 per share, the entire company, including its non-newspaper properties, is valued by its investors at only $3.2 billion or around half the break-up value.


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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Who is The Medium Run for?

Short answer, of course, is that it's for you. But the long answer is that it's for my boss.

One of my personal hobbyhorses is that you should always know your intended audience. They don't have to be the same as your actual audience, but your writing will be better if you've got an end-user (as they say) in mind. Some journalists write their articles to their moms. I usually write to my friend Mark, actually.

Well, this blog is written for my editor, by which I mean all his colleagues at small- to mid-size newspapers around the English-speaking world, who are trying to find their way online. And, to a lesser extent, folks who are, like me, in less powerful positions but looking for ways to advocate change.

I don't expect many of those folks to read me, but frankly, fellow commentators, you're not the ones who will save my industry, so I'm not going to write with you in mind. Sometimes, though not always, this means that I'll be writing what's obvious to those more steeped in this stuff. I can handle that. I hope you can, too.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Reinventing news for a search-based world

On OJR, Robert Niles has a fascinating suggestion for completely rethinking online news: replace inverted-pyramid newspaper articles with staff-written wikis. (For which he suggests the delightful nickname "stikis." You heard it here first, dear reader.) Why? To attract search-engine traffic.

I'm suggesting that -- instead of distinct daily takes -- news stories could be covered with encyclopedia-style articles that staffers would update with new information whenever available. How many more inbound links would such an approach get?
Inbound links, of course, being the current currency of the search-driven Web.

I see two obvious problems with the suggestion:

1) the writing required would be so different from that used in the print product that editorial resources would be taxed, and
2) the lede would be perpetually buried; that is, readers would have trouble figuring out what parts of the news are new.

Though the second problem might be avoided with constant rewriting and clever formatting, my hunch is that self-contained news stories will remain the dominant delivery device for news. They're simply easier to pluck relevant details out of. This isn't to say that local papers couldn't launch parallel stiki or wiki services for their coverage area. But I doubt extensive stikis are likely to be worth their while.

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Using tags in local newspaper archives

How can small papers get the most out of their archives? Folksonomy is sexy, but most Web audiences are too small for it to work well. However, old-fashioned, top-down tags can be a useful tool for the many local papers that, like many Web newcomers, still sort their Web content with print principles in mind.

(Yes, has added links to all its stories. Yes, this is a terrific promotional move for a national paper. No, it's doesn't add as much to local papers, because they aren't looking for national readers. But yes, local papers ought to consider offering it merely as a service to readers.)

But here's something more important that small papers could easily do with minimal staff effort: make a list of a couple dozen possible "tags" for stories. When any story is sent to the Web, a staffer can glance over the list of tags and check any that apply.

A newspaper in North Carolina might write frequently about the pork industry. Does the print edition have a section entirely for the pork industry? Of course not. And as a result, the paper's Web site doesn't, either. But it should! A small set of staff-written tags are easy ways to build topical archives -- whose index pages (available in RSS, of course) can then be used to cluster non-news content for the target audience, such as topical blogs, off-site links, and of course targeted ads.

What's more, a tag system, unlike a print-style tree categorization, lets stories fall into multiple categories. And it can be used to easily locate similar articles, which have similar combinations of tags.

Readers should be able to navigate newspaper Web sites in various ways: search, vertical brosing (feature section->movies page->Brokeback Mountain review), and horizontal browsing (Brokeback Mountain review->Oscar preview). A staff-maintained tag system is one way to facilitate that.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

It's not too late to prevent Wal-Martization of the Web

Local newspapers shouldn't yet be running up white flags in the battle for local mindshare.

Responding thoughfully to my recent argument that local newspaper sites must do more than merely gather news, Chris Tolles of comments:

One word --WAL*MART. The idea that a set of local monopolies are going to be maintained in the long run, with the audience increasing its rate of online adoption (where there is little or no brand for a loot of local papers) is a bit of a stretch. ... How often does the average 25 year old start looking for a restaurant review on the home page of the local paper, vs. Google?
Chris makes a great point about long-run consolidation. (Hence, by the way, the modest title of this blog.) But I think he overestimates the adoption rate -- and the Google loyalty -- of "the average 25 year old." If a newspaper can provide a better restaurant directory than Google, it's certainly not too late to notify the neighborhood. This goes double in small markets, which are less mobile -- and therefore potentially more loyal -- than the big one that I assume Chris lives in.

Most local papers have cash flowing out their armpits. Rapid reinvention as local information sites could head off the encroaching Wal-Martization of local content. (This might be engineered at the corporate level.) And that would go a long way toward keeping newspaper brands alive -- and their news operations viable -- for many years to come.

Chris's original post closed with the following vision for newspapers (my emphasis):
[N]ewspapers need to build the products their audiences and advertisers want, rather than basing their strategy on a capacity for great journalism and printing pages of classifieds. ... The successful newspaper business of 2010 might look a lot like the successful newspaper business of 1910 – and the connection to Pultizer won’t be his prize, but rather his business methods.
I've got no problem with changing the business methods. But maybe the difference between Chris and I is that I'm not ready to give up those prizes. And I'm not convinced we have to.

Not yet.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Saving the suburbs from bowling alone

The Web gives local newspapers a chance to fill a social vacuum that's arisen in small towns and suburbs across the United States. One Illinois paper is setting out to do it.

The (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald is the quintessential suburban newspaper. Penetration is weak, but they make up for it on volume, distributing more than 20 zoned editions to a sprawling footprint across Chicago's wealthy west and northwest suburbs.

Character? Some. Soul? Um.

Beep, the family-owned paper's new publication for 18-34s, wants to give the suburbs a soul. Not only does it aim to introduce local folks to one other online -- log in to see the pleasantly quirky user profile page -- it wants to become a social resource for hundreds of thousands of young suburbanites who feel alienated or lonely in the atomized modern world. It wans to let them know that they aren't alone, that things are happening near them. And it knows that -- unlike in the big city -- the perfect distribution model for the car-addicted, shrub-encrusted suburbs is the Web.

This is not a trivial service to readers, or to society.

Though the who-attended-whose-party "community pages" of newspapers across the country are treated like vestigal organs, just waiting for their elderly readers to go blind, local papers shouldn't turn up their noses at the past. Those were -- remember? -- the glory days, for newspapers as well as American society. The social institutions of the 20th Century have crumbled, but human thirst for physical interaction hasn't. As the prime clearinghouses for local information, newspapers can use the distribution power of the Web to help people find each other again, and build institutions for the next hundred years.

Beep and its peers have an inspiring vision for the Web, and though I'm not affiliated with Beep, I'm proud to say I played a part in its creation.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Yahoo says "no thanks" to local news

Newspapers shouldn't celebrate the news that Yahoo doesn't want to compete with their newsgathering service. They should treat it as a warning.

As the Local Onliner reported the other day, Yahoo News boss Neil Budde told the Software Information Industry Association that he's happy to rely on local providers for local news:

"We’re not getting into the local news business," said Budde. ... "[O]riginal content will be a small part of what we do." Mostly, Yahoo just wants to be a "remixer," like a dance club DJ, he said.
Unfortunately, the local newspaper business is not the dance music business. As I've argued, merely reporting the news doesn't make money. Financially speaking, the crucial service newspapers provide today is connecting advertisers with the proper audiences. Yahoo would love to take that job itself by becoming the portal through which everyone encounters news.

Big profits for Yahoo. Long, slow decline for newspapers.

The better solution is for local papers to devote themselves to remaining the premier portals for information on their local area. They've done this in print for years. Now they just need to do it online. And, as Yahoo knows, news content alone won't be enough.

(By the way: I know blaming a missed update on a PC malfunction is so 1.0, but that is indeed the reason I was absent last weekend. As a result, I'll be playing catch-up with extra posts over the next few days.)

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

WSJ's excellent adventure in Bismarck

Not a moment too soon, the Wall Street Journal jumped in its time machine today and headed to North Dakota, concluding in a profile of the Bismarck Tribune that papers with less than 100,000 circulation exist in this country, and they're doing pretty well.

"Mass media still is 'mass' in rural America," says Pat Finken, president of Odney Advertising.
Note the rumblings of trouble, though:

"One of the reasons that the newspapers out here hung on longer than most is that the people out here, because of our rural nature, were more reluctant to adapt to the Internet," says Steve Scheel, chairman and chief executive of Scheels All Sports Inc.

That is changing. Scheels, a family-run business based in Fargo with 22 sporting-goods stores, has about 3,000 employees, a little more than half of whom are 40 years old or younger. The company took a poll recently, Mr. Scheel says, and almost no one in that age range got the local paper at home. At the same time, the response rate to the company's newspaper ads is half of what it was 10 years ago, he says. So increasingly, Mr. Scheel is skipping newspaper ads and reaching out to customers directly through email.

I hope this coverage helps clear the fog between both parties: media commentators, many of whom seem nearly blind to the different economics of smaller markets, and small publishers, many of whom seem in denial that the metro dailies are a window to their future.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

A vertical search for national news

The Associated Press's CEO "can't imagine" why national news outlets haven't teamed up to wall off their news content within their own search engine. I'm skeptical about such a plan, but it's related to my earlier post about walling off local news content.

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Walling off the local news garden: A-OK

Unlike national news outlets, local papers have good reason to be tempted by last week's talk about withholding news content from search engines.

The story stirred up a predictable tizzy among futurists. Newspapers' job is "to inform the public to what’s going on," wrote Chris Tolles in an intelligent but presumptuous post (not pegged to the search engine story, but quite applicable). Search engines, wrote one Techdirt contributor, are merely "making that content more valuable by making it easier to find."

Alas, these generalizations don't fit small markets.

What Tolles describes is the job he thinks newspapers should do . . . in the future. But don't mistake his prediction for a sustainable business model. Today, newspapers do much more than provide news content: they sort, prioritize and distribute it; they pair advertisers with content that fits their needs; and in small markets they even design the damn ads.

Someday, maybe, a model will arise to support pure newsgathering operations of decent quality. But until then, mere reporting simply doesn't pay for itself, especially at the local level, where there aren't enough rich people to support philanthropic drives like NPR's or enough outlets to support economies of scale like the AP's.

Moreover, whatever Techdirt may assume, local newspapers have a very different relationship with Google News than Agence France Presse does. Unlike national outlets, local newspapers have little use for non-local traffic. Non-local readers who stumble in from national aggregators don't fit a local newspaper's niche; visitors won't be buying locally, so they only dilute the value of the paper's pageviews.

As I wrote yesterday, local papers need to become the dominant information-and-connection brand within their communities. They won't do that with news alone, and they certainly won't do it with news outside their niche.

So what's the harm in opening local news content to search engines and news aggregators? Don't laugh: competition. Unlike national outlets, local papers retain near-monopolies on original reporting within their niche. This eliminates a major value aggregators and search engines provide consumers: diversity. Until local papers no longer have the dominant local news brand, small papers who hand their headlines to a local aggregator are asking people to start turning to another brand for the news.

As Carl Howe argues, newspapers provide the increasingly valuable service of cutting through all the crap. (Several of these links, by the way, come courtesy of Howe's own post on this subject.) Newspapers judge what's important to their audiences, and arrange it accessibly. This is as important as newsgathering itself. But aggregators like Newsvine aim to do the same thing better and cheaper. If they succeed, they'll use that advantage to demolish the brands of local papers. And when that happens, Newsvine won't be paying for the level of newsgathering that newspapers now do.

If, however, local papers can quickly co-opt the innovations of aggregators and search engines and tweak that technology for local use, they have a fighting chance at remaining the dominant local information brands. That should be their goal.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

The local future of vertical search

There's a key difference between local and national news outlets that has so far insulated small newspapers from online competition but which will eventually leave them even more vulnerable than their bigger brethren.

Unlike national and regional papers, local papers are niche media. They cater to the tiny number of people who care about, for example, Gadsden, Alabama. Nobody else in the world keeps as many boots on the ground in a small- to mid-size community as the local newspaper.

That's why many newspaper corporations are urging their editors to emphasize local news on their Web sites even more than in their print products. Simply: on the Web, we have competitors for our national and global content. But in small towns, local news content is still back in the happily monopolistic 20th century.

This brings us to search. Search engines let you keep a few big brands in your head, and rely on them to find content from lots of other brands. But Google and the other general-interest search kings don't target niches well. Yes, googling "gadsden auto sales" is easier than tracking down the Gadsden Times' classifieds, but the quality is inferior: anyone with an ad in the paper has their information up to date and tells you exactly what they're selling. And a Google Local search is good at tracking down retailers, not connecting you with local peers.

Local news is even harder to get from a general-interest search engine. (Aggregators like Newsvine may one day have enough users to work in smaller markets, but they're not very useful when there aren't very many news outlets to grab from.)

So search is a great way to find things, but general-interest searches are too imprecise to seriously compete with local newspapers. What will threaten local papers--or, phrased differently, what people want but aren't getting--are "vertical" local search engines, which are engineered to turn up local results for given searches. Search engines that users visit in order to find local results.

Vertical search is hot in niche media, and rightly so. "If Google is going to be CBS, I want to be Turner Broadcasting," says LookSmart CEO Dave Hills, whose company offers engines for subjects like sports, food, and fashion as well as a few big metro areas. Existing vertical services like LookSmart, Oodle, the still-primitive Google Base and even the ugly, user-unfriendly Craigslist are all quite scalable. They will take over small markets eventually if local brands don't own those markets first.

And if they do move in, small papers will be devastated, because local advertising, unlike national or regional advertising, is seldom about brand-building, which can occur through accidental encounters with display ads on a news page. Local advertising is about connecting people with stuff they're looking for. Someday soon, somebody will build a better Craigslist, and the bottom will really fall out of classifieds. But major metro papers can weather that collapse more easily than small-town papers.

For now, those small newspapers have the dominant online mindshare in their communities. There's no reason they can't use this--quickly--to dominate local vertical search.

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"The heart and soul of journalism is being decided right now."

If any one article captures the depth and breadth of the trouble facing newspapers--and calls news-lovers to arms--it's this AJR piece, via Romenesko.

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A nonprofit national newspaper?

The other day, my friend David asked me whether I'd ever heard anyone talk about a nonprofit national newspaper, supported in part by philanthropy, a la The Atlantic or NPR. Perhaps the distribution costs would be too high, he wondered, but what about an online newspaper? This is what I told him.

The more common debate at the moment (and I don't know why it hasn't happened to a greater extent before) is reprivatization. Some small nonprofits, like the Anniston Star, already exist. And the impending Knight-Ridder collapse has led to talk about some sort of union or employee ownership, which would be cra-zee.

The biggest impediment to a national nonprofit daily would be distribution. USA Today took 5 years of free stories from across the Gannett empire to massage its distribution model into profitability, and nobody has that kind of cash flow except private corporations. (USA Today still moves a huge share of its ink through single-copy sales, and most of those are hidden in the fine print of hotel bills. It's not high-quality circulation, but they make up for it with their high-quality demographic of traveling businesspeople. So it works, but I'm not sure there's room for more.)

Even NPR is just a content provider, something like the AP, not a full-fledged distribution organization. It sloughs that work off to its less financially secure member stations.

Of course, the Internet is the heaven to which distribution models all dream of going when they die. And Salon actually comes close to being a nonprofit Internet newspaper. (Nonprofit in the sense that it never turns a profit.)

The basic problem with an Internet newspaper, even a nonprofit one, is that online ads make too little money to support a daily newsgathering organization of national quality. If even a break-even model is going to be found for the Internet, I think for-profit companies are going to have to find it, because nobody else has the money to spare.

All that said, if my nightmares come true and newspapers gradually slice their news operations down to TV station staffing levels, there will be a big upmarket opening for a few companies (perhaps the New York Times, some satellite-distributed version of NPR and a few other big papers) who will continue to provide quality news for the few who can afford it. A nonprofit newspaper might be one of them.

So: I am pessimistic.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

About The Medium Run

This is a more-or-less-weekly blog about local newspapers and their hopes for an online future, written from the perspective of a print guy turned online guy for a small, respectable daily in the Pacific Northwest. Because that guy is me.

Here are my assumptions:
1) Newspapers are generally in big trouble, because before long the Web will do everything that print does, except better and cheaper. However
2) Most local newspapers are still near-monopolies, both in news and advertising. So they aren't currently in big trouble. But
3) They will be. Moreover
4) If newspapers fail, the people that replace them will be uninterested in or incapable of original reporting, the crucial community service good local newspapers provide today. Therefore
5) Newspapers need to rapidly learn how to do on the Web what they've been doing in print--except better and cheaper.

Here is where I stop:
1) 2040. I don't have a damn clue.

If I have one wish for The Medium Run, it'll help counteract the general disregard a lot of media thinkers have for newspapers outside major metro areas. If the city slickers aren't going to look out for us, we're going to have to look out for ourselves.

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