Submitted by yelvington on November 2, 2011 - 1:55pm
In business, a Chinese wall is an information barrier that separates one part of the company from another. In newspapers, there's a Chinese wall between the journalism part (the newsroom) and the business part (advertising), and usually also the opinion part (the editorial page). Outsiders generally don't understand this, but left hand really doesn't know what the right hand is up to, and what's more, often don't want to know.
I was thinking about that the other night when listening to a live stream of a conference at CUNY in which Journal Register chief John Paton said every one of his #jrc newspapers will cover its newsroom costs this year with digital revenues.
How many journalists know their newsroom's budget? How many know their company's digital revenues? This information isn't passed around openly (and no, I'm not going to reveal any Morris numbers; I'll leave that to Derek May).
But ignorance of this information leaves journalists to guess, and often guess wildly wrong, then build towers of assumptions on these bad foundations. Ever wonder where dumb, self-defeating ideas come from? Now you know.
The oldest, deepest, most basic human emotion is fear. The worst fear is fear of the unknown. So in these uncertain and turbulent days of change for newspaper companies, we shouldn't be surprised that many working journalists, lacking any signals to the contrary, despair for the future of their profession.
Run this equation: N = newsroom budget / digital revenues * 100 N = digital revenues/newsroom budget * 100. Paton planted a flag at 100. Where is your N?
(Don't over-think this. Don't argue that print production costs shouldn't be counted. Just do the calculation. It's a barometer. It can predict fair skies and storms pretty well.)
I've seen papers perform from the 20s to 200. If you're in the middle, you should at least get a glimmer of hope that there is a sustainable future for local journalism in a digital world. In the worst economy in our lifetimes, you're covering your newsroom costs!
If you can do 100 and somebody else is doing 200, do 200. If you can do 200, why not 400? Print is declining. Pick up the slack. What needs to happen to get you there?
There are a lot of derivative indicators like these that can, and should, be discussed in the newsroom.
If you have an unhealthy score, there are two ways to go about improving it: cut costs or increase revenues. Does a newsroom play a role in increasing revenues?
Don't jump to "no." Because, as I said, even the Great Wall has gateways. Newsrooms need to collaborate in appropriate ways with the rest of the company to gather the kind of audiences that advertisers need to address.
Repeatedly I've seen newsrooms create projects and special sections of substantial scale without a thought as to whether there should even be a business plan.
And I've see ad teams create special sections without any real thought as to why a user would want to go there, then complain that the site needs a redesign to "drive more traffic" to the poorly designed new product -- as if users could be driven like cattle. (Note: Users are like cats. You can't make them do a thing.)
I knew an editor once who wouldn't allow the real estate section to be featured on the "content portion" of the homepage -- as if there were no reader/user value in the real estate listings. It is no abandonment of principle to feature the real estate section on the weekend. It's a service. If you're in a newsroom, your loyalty should be to the reader/user -- not the Chinese wall.
You have to work together on these things. I have learned that while ad salespeople may be an avaricious bunch of back-patting expense-account lunchers (and I mean that in the nicest way), they also care about what they sell. Engage them early. Work with them, not against them. Make them fall in love with your product before it's time to sell it. And help make their product something the users will love.
Submitted by yelvington on October 10, 2011 - 8:58am
"Digital First!" is a great battle cry, and thank you, John Paton, for giving it to us all. It is pure leadership, a flag planted forward declaring that newspapers now see print as the past and digital as the present and future.
As it is adopted in places as disparate as the Guardian in the UK, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia, and at Morris, where I work, we all have to be on guard against a too-facile interpretation, especially in newsrooms.
It's not about publishing news online first.
That's no revolution. We were doing that in 1994 at the Star Tribune, on a pre-Web digital platform. So were Access Atlanta, OnWisconsin, and other pre-Web newspaper online projects. The "continuous news desk" is a very last-century idea. Can we assume that we publish news while it's still news, and move on?
Digital First is about making the future your first priority, with everything that implies.
It requires restructuring all your priorities. Not just when you do it, but what you do and how you do it.
It requires grasping what is different about digital media -- and leveraging those differences.
So what are those differences? There are many, but here are three worth pondering:
Time. It's not just about the volatility of news. Brands are volatile. Ideas are volatile. Change has accelerated. In such an environment, "the way we do things here" is probably wrong. Challenge everything. If "news" is "old" moments later, are there things you could be doing with your time that create longer-lasting value?
Surplus. Newspapers evolved in an era of information scarcity. As I write this, an estimated 12.51 billion Web pages are at our fingertips. In such a glut, clarity and simplicity become scarce. What are you doing that helps guide people through this clutter?
Control. Gatekeeping died back in the last century. Everyone is a self-publisher. Information flows around would-be barriers in a globally networked conversation. You can't manage information in this environment. But can you lead? Do you understand what is implied by that question? How can you leverage this process?
Our newsrooms can be powerful advantages as we battle for survival with competitors that are legion. Or they can sink us. Veneration of tradition is dangerous. Mourning for the past is dangerous. Blaming others is dangerous. This does not mean our traditions contained no wisdom, or that we are better for having lost so many colleagues, or that others played no role in our predicaments. It's just that looking backward during a battle will get you shot.
The business model of a media company is this: First, attract an audience that is, for lack of a better term, "commercially interesting." Not all audiences are equal. Then make money either straight from that audience, or by selling audience attention to others (through means such as advertising), or some combination.
Accepting an audience responsibility, as opposed to just a news responsibility, is critically important.
To accept an audience responsibility, a "newsroom" must grasp and own three major initiatives, not just one. They go by many names, but here I'll just attempt descriptions.
Tell me what is happening now, and what it means. Responsibility for "news" doesn't go away, it just gets more complicated in the chaotic bazaar of realtime journalism where the community plays a major role. The audience is not passive. It has creators, not just consumers.
Help me find the information I need in my daily life. I'm not just a citizen and a voter. I have information needs that relate to my job, my role as a consumer, and my entertainment. Some of those needs are peculiarly local. Information that isn't news is a blind spot that newsrooms must overcome if they are to continue to exist.
Help me connect with people. The need for human conversation is as powerful as the need for food and the need for shelter. A community begins with conversation. A community without conversation will die. As a community journalist, nothing you do is more important than tending to this responsibility. It's not a distraction from your job. It is your job.
Digital First certainly is not unique to newsrooms. It has other meanings for other departments.
For sales, it means radical changes in focus, in goals, in incentives, in the complexity of the product line, and in degree of sophistication of salespeople. If, as some claim, print dollars are being traded for digital dimes, then it means learning how to stack dimes quickly and efficiently.
For print production, it means making hard and often unpalatable decisions to cut costs so that the inevitable decline of print does not kill the broader organization.
These changes are not always pleasant, but failure to change is not an option.
Submitted by yelvington on October 8, 2011 - 9:22am
I suspect everybody in journalism has their own crazy lady story. I was reminded of mine last night when browsing pages in Roger Ebert's memoir, "Life Itself." Ebert was born and raised in Urbana, Ill., where I lived in the 1970s. While our paths never crossed -- he was already working in Chicago at the time -- I was struck by this reference:
"When I was sick it was the best time. I could stay in bed and listen to Our Gal Sunday .... Before that there was a local program Penny for your Thoughts, where people got a penny just for calling up Larry Stewart and talking to him."
Wow. I hadn't thought of Larry Stewart and Penny for your Thoughts for years.
I was working at my first regular daily newspaper job, at the Champaign News-Gazette, while taking classes at the University of Illinois in 1971. Every day the newspaper ran on page 3 a story summarizing and "following up" on topics discussed on Stewart's morning WDWS radio show.
Writing this was a chore regarded in the newsroom as on par with sweeping the floor (which I don't think ever happened).
As the new guy, it fell to me to take a transistor radio into the newsroom library, take notes, and turn in 14 inches of summary. And as the new guy, I was eager and green enough to take seriously the "following up" reference in the blurb that ran with the daily copy.
One day a caller had a unique problem. She had some guinea pigs she needed to give away because she had to move to an apartment where pets weren't allowed. But these were special guinea pigs and she wanted to pass them along to researchers who would care for them properly.
These guinea pigs could talk.
Desperate to write something other than dull stenography from a radio show, I tracked her her down and drove to her Champaign apartment with my camera and notebook.
It was just as sad as you might imagine: the place was a cluttered dump, and she was clearly several bricks short of a full load. The rodents weren't much for posing and even less for talking.
I took notes, returned to the paper and pecked out a short feature, concluding that while I hadn't heard anything from them other than squeaks, I had to admit I wasn't sure I favored talking rodents in the first place, and maybe I was just in denial.
It ran in the paper, because in those days the News-Gazette had virtually no newsroom management. We could work as many hours as we wanted (for $2 an hour) and whatever got written generally found its way into print.
Any rational reader would conclude that the guinea pig lady was a nut case and that maybe I was exploiting her condition, but she decided I was her friend. She found my home phone number and for the next couple of years would call me at odd hours to share her troubles about pets and changing apartments. Eventually I changed addresses and numbers enough that I shook her off my trail.
I don't know what happened to the crazy lady who had conversations with her guinea pigs. I do know there are many people like that in this world. So long as they're not an overt and obvious risk to others, the mentally ill in our so-called advanced society are pretty much left to fend for themselves and for their talking guinea pigs. When the guinea pigs aren't enough, they can get their social interactions by calling in to radio shows -- and today by posting comments on websites.
Submitted by yelvington on October 6, 2011 - 10:25am
For a Society of News Design panel at last weekend's conference in St. Louis, I made a list of 10 discussion points to get things going. Here they are:
It's not all about the tablet. Tablets are cool. Tablets are significant. But phones are cool, too, and smartphone sales dwarf those of the iPad. Take the pocket-size format seriously.
It's not all about the apps. Native apps have some theoretical advantages in performance, functionality and distribution -- but the numbers don't lie. Even the most app-focused newspaper can do far better on the open mobile Web. Be sure you're doing the mobile Web justice.
It's not all about the iStuff. Designer Apple fanatic? Get over it. The world is becoming Android first, IOS second. Blackberry is falling like a dead bird and Windows Phone 7 is a rounding error. Do the right thing with Android.
It's not all about serving every platform. Journalists who now fret about the digital divide can now fret about the feature phone gap. But forget about it. Aim high. People who don't have smartphones also don't have data plans. And by the time you're done with your project, smartphone penetration will have risen another 10 points anyway.
It's not all about the right vendors. While vendors have a role to play, they're fundamentally tool merchants. If they sell you the wrong tool, it's your fault. Take responsibility for your product line and your strategic direction. Use vendors wisely.
It's not just another distribution channel. We should have learned this from the Web, but many of us didn't. A mobile device is an intelligent device with storage and sensors and the full power of the Internet at its beck and call. It can do amazing things. If you don't take advantage of those amazing capabilities, you will have a sad phone, and sad users.
It's not all about the news. Journalists go around wearing blinders. Real people have 360 degrees of information needs. Get practical. Get useful. Recognize the importance and utility of commercial information, databases, conversation.
It's not "one size fits all." If you pile everything you do into one presentation, don't expect responsive HTML5/CSS3 tricks to save you from crushing your users in a landslide of ... stuff. Create multiple entry points into your big pile-o-data, serving specific mobile user needs. Don't make people wade through an avalanche of headlines to find the really cool geolocated apartment database you hid on your overloaded site.
It's not just publishing; it's sharing. Facebook and Twitter and Google+ are the new front page. When someone shares a link, it had better work on mobile devices. Don't bounce the user to the front page of some crippled mobile application (as the Marriott conference hotel did on its website).
It's not just about ads and sponsors. Billions of dollars are going to be spent on mobile marketing, and we haven't even begun to sort out the right way to serve those customers. This is a tremendous creative opportunity for smart designers who get functionality and have a few clues about implementation. The field is ripe for invention. What an exciting time this is.
I just filed my last expense accounts, tying off my final paperwork at Morris DigitalWorks, where I've spent the last decade.
But I'm not leaving Morris. I'm being mainstreamed. As of this week I'm part of the Morris Publishing Group, which is rebooting with a new digital focus. I'll be reporting to Bob Gilbert, newly named VP of audience development. We'll be working directly with people in our local operating units to innovate, create, measure, report, share and advance.
Over the years, MDW helped Morris newspapers win stacks of awards and build one of the strongest online revenue streams in the industry. MDW also created online publishing software and became a successful vendor with clients throughout the United States and in Europe and Australia.
Now MDW is being dissolved, not in failure but in success. The old battles are over and we've won. We're digital-first. We've successfully embraced an open-source software revolution in our Web operations. Along with other Morris units, we've created a spinoff company to provide technology-driven shared services to other media companies. It's time to turn the page.
This isn't just paper shuffling; instead of being part of a specialized, separate "Internet division" pushing for change in the newspaper division, we'll be in the publishing group, pushing to change ourselves.
One of my first projects will be pulling together a virtual innovation project team consisting of smart people at our "formerly known as newspapers" business units. They'll devote a percentage of their time to designing, prototyping and real-world testing in a process modeled on what we've learned from the open-source software community. We will work together.
There are new battles to be fought, but they are different. We have to adapt to a new economic reality. It's as if we are mammals facing a new post-dinosaur world. We have no luddites and no curmudgeons to rail against, or to blame. Our future is up to us, and I'm looking forward to it.
Submitted by yelvington on October 4, 2011 - 4:22pm
I was on a "next five years" future panel in the mobile/tablet track at last weekend's Society of News Design conference in St. Louis. Here's an expansion of what I had to say:
When you're thinking about the future, there are two sides to consider. On one side, you have the William Gibson model: the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed. With that model, it's easy to see: faster, cheaper, flatter, lighter, more connected, easier to use. All the pieces of that evolution are here today. It's just a matter of connecting them and thinking about their impact. That impact may be staggering, but it's understandable and therefore not magic.
On the other side, you have the Black Swan model: something completely unanticipated, totally outside the realm of our current reality, will change everything. We won't see it coming. Afterward, it may seem perfectly normal and maybe even obvious.
While I don't know what our Black Swans will look like, I think I know where they'll come from: artificial intelligence. Specifically the branch of AI known as machine learning.
AI has been central to science fiction for generations, and it's often a scary tale. Filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1968) showed us chilling visions of computer dominance long ago. But AI has turned out to be a tougher nut to crack than was imagined in those days.
A branch of AI research called machine learning has been quietly laying the groundwork for what I think will be revolutionary over the next few years, even if I don't understand what it will do, exactly.
This is a simplification, but in general, machine learning works like this: You start with a whole lot of data. You program the computer to look for statistically significant relationships. Then you have the computer use those relationships to predict outcomes -- essentially to solve problems. Finally comes the important step: you let the computer make mistakes and provide feedback to correct those mistakes. This is somewhat like the way a child learns: observation, guesses, errors and corrections. Red things that glow tend to be hot, so I won't stick my finger there any more.
As the computer gets more data to compare, and more corrections to consider, it gets smarter, far smarter than its initial programming. This is how IBM's Watson supercomputer got smart enough to play Jeopardy.
Without necessarily knowing it, we're all using AI every day, and teaching computers to get smarter. Remember when Google Translate was new? We used to have fun translating a paragraph to another language, then translating it back, and laughing at the crazy result. But somewhere along the line it got really good. How? By processing immense quantities of data and being corrected by its users. Google Search works the same way (one reason they're recording clickthroughs is to get feedback on search results). So does Google's voice recognition.
In this AI arms race, the big winners are not necessarily the smartest computer scientists, but rather the entities with the most data to crunch and the most users whose usage patterns and feedback become part of the mathematically driven outcomes.
Google, Amazon, and Facebook. We know about Google. Amazon's new Silk browser (for the Kindle Fire tablet) will proxy all your Web interactions, learn about people in general and you in particular, and use that knowledge to predict and anticipate your wants and your actions. Facebook's personalized "News Feed" stream is driven by AI processes that consider not only your social graph but how you interact with people and topics. Despite Facebook's rather silly denials, they're clearly gathering massive intelligence about us through those "Like" buttons on other websites, including most news sites. Imagine the mountain of data being fed to their machine-learning algorithms.
I can hope that whatever machine intelligence rises out of this globally networked data pile is beneficent, something that helps us all make sense of things, keep track of our loose ends, understand what's important, and determine our civic future in a more sane and rational way than has been the case.
Or, if you're more of the dystopian persuasion, you could watch this: