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. CareerBuilder.com ... 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 ma.gnolia.com. Just one problem: to the reader, del.icio.us 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 washingtonpost.com; the smallest, newhampshire.com.

Oregon Public Broadcasting: 9.2
Chicago Tribune: 6.9
The Press (Canterbury, New Zealand): 5.2
Stuff.co.nz (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
NewHampshire.com (Manchester Union Leader): 10
Winston-Salem Journal: 6.8
NewRiverValley.com (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 Boston.com.

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 newspaper.com 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) Boston.com'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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