Content Ninja's Weblog

An exploratory journey on the edge of newspaper evolution

Buckle up, boys; bumpy ride isn’t over March 31, 2008

Ready to rumble? It’s been a banner day for wrestling with the demise of newspapers. Theme of the day is that journalists have become elite insiders, journalism celebrities and snobs who lost touch with audiences.

Paul Gillin is marking the one-year anniversary of his Newspaper Death Watch blog. He does so with a milestone column today at Social Media Today (http://www.socialmediatoday.com/SMC/29299).  

His brutal conclusion: “It’s too late for the newspaper industry to save itself. The average regular newspaper reader is 55 years old. Fewer than one in five people under the age of 25 ever reads a newspaper. They’re not going to start reading one now.” He promises to maintain his vigil.

Fans of The New Yorker style (lengthy, intelligent, a tad academic) will love Eric Alterman’s entry today (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman?currentPage=all) on how newspapers got into this sorry mess and what it means for democracy. 

I admire The New Yorker and ate up this piece. It’s thought-provoking. Time is spent dissecting the Huffington Post’s predominantly news-aggregator model (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/) and its “mullet strategy” (business in front, party in the back).

Alterman quotes Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti: ” ‘User-generated content is all the rage, but most of it totally sucks. (The mullet strategy invites users to) argue and vent on the secondary pages, but professional editors keep the front page looking sharp. The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.’ “

Alterman goes on to a lengthy description of Walter Lippman’s elitist views on democracy and journalism, circa 1920s, and how much of Lippman’s vision came to be true as journalists adopted a “we’ll tell you” attitude toward readers and, in some cases, joined the elite ranks they once just reported on.

Alterman’s conclusions are bleak, too: “Today, almost all serious newspapers are scrambling to adapt themselves to the technological and community-building opportunities offered by digital news delivery, including individual blogs, video reports, and ‘chat’ opportunities for readers.

“Some, like the Times and the Post, will likely survive this moment of technological transformation in different form, cutting staff while increasing their depth and presence online. Others will seek to focus themselves locally.

“Newspaper editors now say that they ‘get it.’ Yet traditional journalists are blinkered by their emotional investment in their Lippmann-like status as insiders. They tend to dismiss not only most blogosphere-based criticisms but also the messy democratic ferment from which these criticisms emanate.”

These treatises on how we got here and what the far-reaching implications could be to an entire industry and to the hallowed governing principles of this country might seem depressing to the point of paralysis. Not so. It’s a call to arms. (Somebody cue “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” eh?)

We must reconnent with our local audience, and we should embrace partisan voices. (Remember the early days of newspapers in this country? And the audience isn’t buying the “objective” model we’ve been hawking for 50 years anyway.) 

No more being smug. No room for feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s all about our audience. It always was, folks. We just lost sight of it. 

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The universe does NOT revolve around us March 28, 2008

Dan Schultz, blogging over at MediaShift Idea Lab (http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2008/03/medias-new-community-role.html), makes a good argument that most newspapers haven’t taken the digital revolution far enough.

“What people are realizing now is that it also isn’t enough to simply enable comments, publish the occasional user-submitted-photo or blog, or incorporate a few pieces of interactive content. All of these things are small steps in the right direction, but small steps are slow and costly in the world of software,” he writes.

 As we’ve been discussing here, the key is building a digital community. Schultz suggests that journalists take up agenda facilitation instead of agenda-setting.

“I’m suggesting that local news sites facilitate ‘bottom up’ agenda. The individuals (the bottom) can suggest issues and those issues may be picked up, prompting natural investigative attention and a swarm response,” he says.

Are you gagging? “Where’s the journalism?” you ask.

“Communities still need the people who find the stories that have fallen under the radar, spend weeks researching the details, and double check the facts,” he says. His argument falls apart, I think, as he continues: “Paid professionals would still report on new issues to see if their community takes interest, but now the digital version of the physical community they serve can act as a living breathing tip-line.”

If the digital community is nothing more than a tip line and the journalist is still the center of the universe, we haven’t pushed the bubble far enough.

 

Face the music March 26, 2008

I’m not just blogging as part of this experiment. I’m venturing into the social media wilderness in other ways, too.

Yesterday I joined Facebook. (Dun-dun-da!) You know what? It’s fun.

I quickly found a former co-worker from my college paper, The Daily Iowan, and we engaged in a game of comedic one-up-manship. I’d forgotten how good Jake is at one-liners. I laughed out loud at my desk like a complete ninnyhammer. 

I even did my part to populate Facebook with more grown-ups, sending invites to family and friends. A few have taken me up on the invite, a few more are promising to but haven’t yet. (You listening, girlies?)

I also discovered that, wow, Facebook can suck up time.

And there, folks, is the most valuable lesson learned, but perhaps not in the way you think. To wit: Facebook is fun, so it doesn’t feel like it’s eating up a lot of time. A healthy online community is not just a comfortable place to be (see previous post “Ciao, bella”), it’s a fun place to be. And that’s what drives people to spend more than 2 seconds there.

I know, I know. My “Eureka!” is someone else’s “Duh!”

I’ve also registered at Twitter, another place to be seen, but I confess I have not made time to explore its full capabilities. Have advice for me? Drop me a line. 

  

 

Ciao, bella! March 24, 2008

Filed under: content,journalism,newspapers,social media — contentninja @ 5:46 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve been under the weather lately. Perfect timing when you consider the less than ideal weather of late: roiling dark clouds, biting wind, spitting sleet. Pretty much describes the state of my stomach Friday and Saturday. Yech.

And my point is? It struck me Sunday, while talking to Mom on the phone, that even at my age I like whining to Mom when I’m sick. It somehow makes me feel better. Family does that for you. My heritage is Sicilian, and family is everything. (You have to go back at least three generations to find any “Tony Sopranos” on the family tree. Capisce?) Generally speaking, though, many of us turn to family for comfort.

Again, so? So that sense of comfort among people you know — maybe not well, but by god they’re family — is a Holy Grail, I think, for people building online communities. Those of us experimenting with social media should want to build a “family” online, where people come to be comforted and comfortable. Get to know us; we’ll get to know you.

Sure, there will be some crazy characters in the mix. That’s OK. A real family has them, too.

Oh, btw, Edward Sussman interview (see earlier post “Faster than a speeding bullet”) didn’t pan out. We failed to connect last week as planned. Moving on …

 

Potts and pans March 20, 2008

I talked this morning with Mark Potts, co-founder of the defunct Backfence.com. Backfence was a company that built online communities around a handful of towns on the East Coast. Although it didn’t make it as a business and closed up shop last summer, it did successfully engage communities online.

Mark graciously agreed to share some of his insights with me. He also blogged about what he learned back in July in his Recovering Journalist blog: http://recoveringjournalist.typepad.com/recovering_journalist/2007/07/backfence-lesso.html

We talked mostly about building an online community. “The single most important thing,” he says, “is trust the audience. That’s hard for editors because editing is about control.”

Be clear about what the community is focused on and what’s OK in its digital space, and then turn it over to the audience, he says. “It’s powerful; they really do take care of things.”

What’s more, Potts says, their motivation for getting involved isn’t compensation. Folks who contribute don’t want money or gifts. “They want to be experts on their community,” he says.

A little recognition in the form of reverse publishing is nice, too. “Don’t train them as journalists; that’s a turnoff,” he says. “Put their name in the paper.”

Now THAT’S humbling to a journalist.

 

Stop talking, start doing March 19, 2008

Action is better than words.

That was the gist of the advice I received Tuesday from David Cohn of NewAssignment.net and editor of Beatblogging. org, one of the experiments I mentioned earlier. We talked by phone about what’s working or not with Beatblogging, various platforms for social media experiments and community building.

Cohn says one of the biggest challenges for the 13 participating reporters is meshing social media — blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — into their regular workflow. They’ve set up their networks but have yet to learn to effectively use them. See his related blog post, on one such struggle for Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired: http://www.beatblogging.org/blog/beat_blogging/index.html 

“Beatbloggers have created a network, but it’s like an ant farm,” Cohn says. It’s “an experiment to look at through the glass.”

He’s not especially worried, though. He figures they’ll find their way. “We’re in a Model T stage. Who knows what will work.”

And newspapers? Can they be “saved”?

“Journalism will find a way to be sustained,” he says, “but that’s not a product. That’s a process. Newspapers might, but they’ll be completely different.”

Cohn notes there’s plenty of room for innovation and that experimental efforts by media companies across the country, from NewAssignment to Gazette Communications, are encouraging.

“I always say it’s cheaper and easier to try something than talk about it,” Cohn says.

 

Wish I hadn’t slept through stats class March 17, 2008

Oh, good lord, is my head spinning. I’ve spent a lot of time today investigating how Americans spend their leisure time. And there are plenty of government and private studies, plus charts, numbers and equations galore, not to mention various news articles on said studies, to help answer the question. My college Quantitative Math prof would be so proud. SNORT. 

So, when we can do whatever we like, what do we do?

According to the American Time Use Survey of 2006 (www.bls.gov/tus/charts/leisure.htm), we spend a lot of time in front of the tube — 2.6 hours a day. No surprise there. Where it gets interesting, though, is the next largest category: socializing and communicating (46 minutes).

When you consider that social media is built around human interaction in digital space, we can see some possibilities. What if we could get folks socializing and communicating with us, through us and beside us. Then they become a viable component in the reporting process. We get more information, maybe better information, and a larger source pool, and they get to do something they actually like doing in their free time.

It’s the “neighbors chatting over the fence” model.