Friday, July 31, 2009

Everything will be better in the new building

All right, my friends (and I think we both know who you are): the air in this joint's been getting stale, and all the people who selected this Blogger layout in 2005 are now much more famous than I am. Therefore, The Medium Run is closed until further notice; for the forseeable future, I'll be blogging about entrepreneurial local journalism under my own domain (but with -- never fear! -- equal sporadicity) at, which will offer all the same services, including its very own RSS feed, which will ding every time I post, and its very own email subscription.

I hope you'll join me there, where our new broadcast is already in progress...

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Two kinds of products that rely on people's flaws

Here's a distinction worth understanding:

a) Products that rely on the idea that people will simply be too dumb to figure out an alternative. These products rely only on informational barriers: once you know the better way to do things, it's no trouble to do things the better way.

Like a car mechanic who preys on ignorance in order to sell more air filters, these products breed resentment.


b) Products that rely on the idea that people don't have the time or effort to pursue an alternative. These products rely on procedural barriers: even if you spent the time to figure out an alternative, you'd need to alter your behavior to take advantage of it.

Like a car mechanic who pokes around in earnest for possible mechanical problems you haven't yet noticed, these products breed loyalty.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer job to save the environment

Exciting news: I've been asked (okay, I basically groveled, but they are actually paying me) to cover local-news startups this summer for one of my favorite blogs, Josh Benton's ridiculously results-oriented Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard's Nieman Foundation.

A few other part-time interns and I should each be posting once a week.

I expect this gig to consume most of my creative energy through September, but I'll be cross-posting here each week to add a few reflections on my reported pieces.

If you have any suggestions of startups, startup plans or startup trends that need covering, I'll be scrambling for good ideas, so please shoot an email to mike (dot) andersen (at) Gmail or leave a comment below.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Disprove this

Here's a brief proposition I'd be curious to see contradicted:

The common factor among all profitable journalism startups in the last seven years is not Web distribution, user interaction, worse content, better content, more content, less content, paid content or free content. The common factor is a narrow audience.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

In which hog fuel demonstrates that paid content has potential

Here's the best case against paid news content. It's two sentences long:

"We tried that. It didn't work."

But there's a powerful rebuttal to that case, one that grizzled online-news veterans (like my man Steve Yelvington, linked above) miss: The economics have changed since last time.

No, consumer desires haven't changed since 1996. Sorry, Al, they wouldn't pay for traditional newspaper content online then, and they won't now. But local media incentives have changed since 1996.

The real question: whether those incentives have changed enough to force newspapers to make the crucial shift that could keep them alive -- a shift to niche products.

If you want to understand how newspaper incentives have changed, you need to understand the following short story from the great Northwest.

It's a story about hog fuel.

Hog fuel is a byproduct of papermaking. It's basically a bunch of tree scraps that get left on the mill floor because they aren't even good for turning into pulp. Paper plants, like this one in my old hometown, produce hog fuel by the metric ton; they can't avoid it.

What do you do with a nearly worthless byproduct? Maybe you could find some odd use for it. But that'd take a lot of work: gathering it, measuring it, marketing it, lining up buyers and shipping it to them. And for what? Obviously your workers' precious time would be better spent on the operation that makes the real money: paper.

No, it's much easier to find some use for hog fuel that costs nothing. And that's exactly what paper mills do: they burn it. Hog-fuel furnaces offset a huge share of many paper plants' substantial electricity bills. It's a cheap and effective way to dispose of something you've got too much of.

But what if paper suddenly ceased to be so profitable?

What would happen to your hog fuel then?

You'd still have a mill that's very good at chopping up trees. But suddenly, you'd start looking closer at your hog fuel. You might start looking for those obscure hog-fuel markets. You might start chopping your logs a bit differently to maximize the value of that hog fuel. You might even start researching how to turn hog fuel into something really valuable, like ethanol -- research that would have never been worthwhile before.

You've got incentives you never had before to make hog fuel valuable.

Hog fuel is Web content. Paper is -- well, paper.

In 1996, when the print product was gushing cash, the rational thing to do with newspaper content online was to throw it up for free. Unlike with paid online content, which requires a helpdesk, a sales effort, and maybe even some changes to the production process, the marginal costs of free content were minimal.

The newsroom was already churning out a metric ton of content, after all. So what if it wasn't optimized for online readership? Hire a kid to hit CTRL-C/CTRL-V for an hour or two each morning, and you'll get some cheap exposure, a hunk of cheap online ad sales and a cheap feeling of progress.

But now, the paper market has dried up.

It's time to figure out what to do with all this crap we've been leaving on the floor, kids. We can squeeze money out of it. We just have to change the process a bit.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's a manifesto

It's been the formula embraced by every half-crazy, screw-the-system dreamer in history, from Henry Thoreau to Jerry Maguire:

Do less, better.

And for journalists, it's the way of the future. It's exactly what consumers are demanding.

How cool is that?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Online news should be replayable

Follow-up thought on yesterday's iTunes for news defense: When analysts say things like:

Newspaper content is ephemeral by nature ... It isn't the same as downloading a song and keeping it and replaying it. It loses its value almost instantaneously.

...the speaker is not describing a problem with iTunes. She's describing a problem with the way news is traditionally presented.

It's a problem that can be solved.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dept. of mythbusting: Money can indeed be exchanged for goods and services

Is an iTunes for news possible? The cool kids all say no.

They're wrong.

A year ago -- three months ago! -- I would have been the last person to make a case for paid content. But I've been coming around, and not for the reasons you think.

It's not because I think newspapers can ever turn back the clock or put the news genie back in the bottle. They can't. From now on, most content will always cost $0.00.

But not all content will be free, because money is not the only cost consumers must pay to read content. Gathering information -- even free information -- requires time, effort and knowledge: time to find it, effort to determine whether content is reliable, and knowledge of what content does or doesn't exist.

If a product can save its readers enough time, effort or knowledge, they'll pay money for it.

This isn't to say that newspaper Web sites in their current form can save people enough time, effort or knowledge to be worth money.

My point is: the problem here isn't the price.

It's the product.

(photo courtesy Flickr user Roby72)

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Monday, April 13, 2009

King Content needs a diet

Here's a simple principle for general-interest-ish publications an age of abundance:

Most readers don't want more. They want less. Though they want more of it to be relevant.

Quicker is better.

Simple as that.

And as Eric Schmidt noted the other day: when speed is the goal, print still works faster than pixels.

Newspapers aren't very fast.

But print is, or can be.

That's why print is still king among newspaper readers.

It's something to consider.

(photo courtesy Flickr user mharrsch)

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

The career ladder loses its top rungs

One of the many reasons that small markets are not safe from the current roil: small papers and broadcast stations, with their low pay and heavy workload, have always been subsidized by the promise of advancing to a larger market, which (unlike the small papers) offered an upper-middle-class family wage and the time to produce high-quality work.

Now that larger markets tend to be basket cases, this subsidy will cease; fewer talented, hardworking people will be drawn to smaller markets; and the quality of small outlets will suffer observably.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why the general audience exists

One word: classifieds.

By now, most people in the news business know that the collapse of classified revenue is the biggest financial threat newspapers face in the short term. But many fail to realize that not only were classifieds hugely profitable, classifieds were the only glue holding general-audience publications in one piece.

It's one of the many reasons why startups should generally not seek general audiences.

In media that face a scarcity of supply, like broadcast television or highway billboards, things are different. But the central goal of newspapers -- amassing a large general audience -- is profitable only because a classified section is a snowball: the bigger it gets, the faster it grows.

(Briefly, here's why. Obviously, every additional classified-section reader makes that section more valuable to advertisers. But because people who use a classified section want more than anything to maximize their selection of products, every additional classified ad makes the section more valuable to readers. It's a virtuous cycle.)

All this, I've understood for a while. Here's what I didn't grok until lately: the need to maximize the classified audience used to be a huge centripetal force on news content, pulling coverage toward the center of public life, toward the things everyone shared. The publisher's objective: maximize the audience. The editor's marching orders: please everyone in town a little bit.

Meanwhile, there was an opposing, centrifugal force: display advertising. Unlike classified advertisers, most businesses are looking for narrow demographics. They don't want to pay for a big display that everyone will see. They want to pay for a cheaper display that only the right people will see. The narrower your audience, the less of your marketing budget that you're wasting.

So: retail ads would seek diversified audiences, classified ads would seek general audiences -- and for a while, classifieds would win.

Then the sea change.

These days, newspapers aren't scarce; a printing press comes free with every Internet connection. For a few years, even the lure of free classifieds on Craigslist couldn't offset the value of the big audience offered by a newspaper. But one by one, advertisers slipped toward the free service, and the classifieds audience has followed. A tipping point came in 2007, when Craigslist's growing audience (and that of other listings sites) got big enough to be really valuable.

More or less, this is why the crisis is happening now.

Today, retailers are still looking for niches. Retail advertisers want to push newspapers and other audience-generating businesses away from the center of public life, into all the demographic nooks and crannies.

And today, there are no classifieds to pull us back.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Old forest, new trees

If you stand far enough back, the future of local news is so easy to see at this point that you can practically phone in your story and still sum things up well.

That's exactly what Perez-Pena does today. He quotes the right people, including Jeff Jarvis, who has the emerging conventional wisdom:

The death of a newspaper should result in an explosion of much smaller news sources online, producing at least as much coverage as the paper did, says Jeff Jarvis, director of interactive journalism at the City University of New York’s graduate journalism school. Those sources might be less polished, Mr. Jarvis said, but they would be competitive.

That's where things are going, and that's where this blog is going, too.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Two things about the Seattle Courant

1) I wish them well, and you should, too.
2) ...but note the comma splice on their "about" page.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Letter to a(nother) young reporter

In the two years I've been playing hooky from the blog -- late '06 to early '09 -- many outlets have launched exciting new lifeboats, most of which have been or are about to be sucked under by the Titanic that's about to submerge behind them.

The latest fad seems to be a call for papers to shun their still-unprofitable Web sites and turn to the real business at hand: harvesting ever-shrinking profit from the print product.

That's fine: if newspapers don't need us, we don't need them. Which was basically my argument in the following letter to an aspiring reporter. Among my claims:

1) Young journalists should generally not seek work at any general-audience outlet that is older than the Web browser.

2) Yes, that includes small markets.

3) The brightest up-and-comers are Web startups that cater to smaller, more highly motivated audiences.

4) For a newcomer, the likeliest path to a job at one of these startups wouldn't be demonstrated expertise in writing -- it'd be demonstrated expertise in the subject matter.

Full letter follows.

Hi, Patricia-

GA-THUMP! I'm going to load you with more information than you need on a quiet Saturday morning.

First off, I'm a government reporter. I occasionally get to dabble in various sorts of artsier culture coverage, but mostly I'm interested in policy, and that's what I write about. But most of my reporting colleagues -- features, sports, business -- got here in more or less the same way.

Starting with the stuff about my own career: I worked four years at the main student paper where Anna and I went to college, including one summer internship at a free alt-weekly paper in my hometown. When I graduated with an English degree in 1999, this wasn't enough to get me in the door at a small-town daily paper, so my first job out of college was at a twice-weekly in rural Iowa. Then I took out $35,000 in loans to do grad school at Northwestern, whose j-school has a pretty good name. My best classes there were the semester I spent in D.C., covering Congress for the Tuscaloosa News (sort of a pseudo-internship) and a semester I spent writing the business plan for a prototype weekly paper for young adults in suburban Chicago.

This got me a job running the Web site at the Longview Daily News, a small-town paper in Washington, and after a year there I moved to a suburban daily outside Portland. I've been at the Columbian for two years now. I'm 27. I make $15.97 per hour, 40 hours a week, $33,500 a year; I rent a one-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood for $595; I shop at Safeway, own a '99 Toyota, rarely fly, save 10 percent for retirement and cook for myself five or six nights a week. I'm comfortable.

I love the freedom and independence of my job, which requires a good mix of artistry and technical knowhow. I like being able to play with different forms and I like learning something new almost every day. I like being responsible more to my readers and my community than to my company. I like having the respect of important people.

I file about four stories a week, 600 to 800 words each. I do four or five major projects (1,500-2,000 words) per year.

Like many newspapers, mine is dancing back and forth from the edge of bankruptcy and the bosses have no long-term plan to save it.

For the last 30 years, this was a fairly typical trajectory for daily newspaper journalists, both feature writers and news reporters: spend a few years in the boonies, working overtime until you collected a portfolio of good clips. Using these, and using contacts among your colleagues and competitors, you climbed your way up to bigger markets, which offered better pay, less quantity, more quality and more specialization.

Describing the journalism market right now is a tall order, so I'm going to depart from your template to do so.

Local newspapers have traditionally been the biggest employers of journalists, with the biggest audiences and the most influence. (National outlets aside.) And as I assume you've heard, newspapers are in big, big trouble. Eighty percent of our revenue comes from ads, but with a shrinking audience, ads in newspapers are becoming less valuable. The audience is shrinking because the Internet provides broader and deeper information than our print product ever can, and our online product is basically just an electronic version of the print product, so it's not going to save us, either.

The economy is making things worse, but this is a permanent situation. Buffett said that until the tide goes out, you don't see who's been swimming naked, and newspapers have been swimming naked for about a decade.

Local TV news, another big journalist employer, is in the same situation. Network TV audiences are shrinking just as fast, and their Web sites aren't any more innovative than newspapers'.

All this is to say that in case you were thinking about it, I would not recommend trying to break into general-audience outlets like newspapers or television. A smart newcomer could almost certainly find a job for a non-daily newspaper in a small town, but it'd almost certainly be a dead end.

Many people break into journalism by freelancing for local or niche magazines. General-interest magazines are also in trouble, but niches are doing better. Business newspapers and trade publications (like American Cop or Architectural Digest) also seem to be doing fine.

Freelancing requires some other source of income as you start, but it might be the best way to tap that artsier energy you mention. To start doing this, look on the Web site of a small publication you like (print or online) to find out if they pay for freelance pieces. If so, cold-call (or, better, walk into) their office and ask for advice on how and what to submit. Start with short stuff, and move to longer projects.

The up-and-comers, journalistically, are Web startups that cater to smaller, more highly motivated audiences (like, say, Right now, I'm looking for a job that'll let me do this for municipal policy, hopefully at a state or local level. It's hard to find, not least because of the thousands of laid-off newspaper journalists flooding the market.

I'd tell you more about those startups -- who they tend to hire, how they pay, what skills they require -- but I don't know and in any case I don't think the rules have been written. I think personal contact is very important for small companies like these, I don't think traditional journalism classes would do a very good job of preparing someone for this work and I don't think these companies would tend to care about what classes you've taken.

I suspect that for a newcomer, the likeliest path to a job at one of these startups wouldn't be demonstrated expertise in writing -- it'd be demonstrated expertise in the subject matter. And I think the best way to demonstrate expertise on a topic is to launch a blog about it and post to it consistently over several months, whether or not it attracts a substantial audience.

That's just my hunch. I hope it (and at least a bit of the above) helps. Let me know if you have any other questions (if you dare).


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The Medium Run rebooted


1) The subtitle: "local newspapers" -> "local journalism"
2) The goal: local newspapers -> local journalism
3) The sidebar: fresh blogroll, less noise from Delicious



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I danno, boss. Thing been sitting right next to me all year, never rang once.

(photo courtesy Flickr user storm_gal)

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