I was a general assignment reporter on 9/11. It happened on a Tuesday, and our weekly papers came out on Monday and Tuesday, so we wouldn't be going to press again for another few days. I didn't really have anything to write about, even though it was obviously big news, and a life-marking event for my generation.
But I was mostly numb to emotion for a few days. When I found out a friend had died, I took a couple hours off of work and played music, music that she'd enjoyed, songs she'd sung with me dozens of times. Generally, though I just felt like I should be informing someone of something.
In Daniel Schorr's autobiography, he says one of the things that made him a great journalist was that he felt emotionally removed from everything that happened, and able to report on it objectively.
These are communities with very different populations and very different priorities. And they all love their children.
If you followed the news at all over the weekend, you know that it was pretty much wall-to-wall coverage for the first day and a half, and now it's more of a human interest angle (funerals and profiles). During the first 12 or 15 hours or so, there was so much misinformation out there, much of propagated by news outlets, that it reminded me that sometimes we need to shut up and look for truth sometimes. And in some cases, maybe shutting up isn't the best route to take.
Media jumped all over information and drew conclusions without any real information. We know now that the shooter was Adam Lanza. He had his brother Ryan's ID on him, though, and some media outlets didn't think to account for the fact that maybe the person and the driver's license wouldn't match. Far from being dead in Connecticut, Ryan Lanza was wondering why people were writing shocking things on his Facebook wall. He was on the bus on the way home from work.
For several hours, the media had the wrong Lanza brother. Ryan deleted his Facebook account, and I'm sure there will be plenty of fallout from this as the months progressed. Don't be surprised if there are civil lawsuits.
Lesson for the media: Sometimes you need to shut up and figure out what the facts are before you go blabbing out any old information you think you have.
You know who else should have shut up? Some people who just want their football. President Obama was in Newtown to deliver his standard "America is weeping with you, something must be done" speech on Sunday night [aside: Don't get me wrong, that's important for the people of Newtown to hear, I just wish we'd have someone speak from the heart instead of delivering the script sometime]. He interrupted the broadcast of the Sunday night football game for about 10 minutes.
On the other end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country's biggest gun lobby. Just a few days after they thanked everybody for getting them to 1.7 million likes on Facebook, they pulled down their Facebook page.
They also went silent on Twitter for a few days, which is common for them in the wake of mass shootings in the U.S.
If you want to stay relevant, I think you have to say something, even if it is just a "We're mourning, too." I think it's really telling that they take a "let's go hide in the corner until everybody focuses on something else for a while" approach to these events.
Lastly, I want to mention something that might point to the growing maturity of the Internet as a medium.
Well, one mother went back trough the author's personal blog and ripper her a new one for the things she was really saying about her kids in public.
Instead of this becoming a war, like that Oatmeal-Buzzfeed thing that happened, the two parents got together to start a discussion and find some common ground.
We, as a species, and we, as a culture, and we, as the media, have a lot to learn still. Mostly, I think it has to do with listening. If we listen to each other, we're going to be able to prevent some of these incidents in the first place.
Welcome back. The fact is, more newspapers are, in fact, stopping print publication, or severely decreasing it.
I'm working in media again now, after almost three years out of the industry, and online-only or primarily-online is much more of a reality now than it was in late 2009 and early 2010 when the only papers who were going that way were in serious trouble. Now, there are papers taking preventative measures and cutting their print runs before they get into serious trouble.
I don't think journalism is in trouble, and more importantly, I don't think good journalism is in trouble.
Back to this new job I have in news. It's primarily a production gig. You won't see my byline very often, and when you do, it'll primarily be stuff like this cross-market roundup that will appear on a dozen sites in various markets.
My job may be very different in a couple of months, though. I'm not sharing anything here that isn't public somewhere, but some of the papers affiliated with our sites are cutting their publication schedules in the first quarter of 2013. We actually don't know what the day-to-day operation of our particular corner of the company is going to look like.
Let's be clear, this shift to online is not about the journalism. It's about technology. It always has been.
You simply cannot make someone purchase and read a medium they don't want to read. Sure, there are people who want newsprint. But there aren't enough of them. There are also people who want to see Hollywood make more religious films, but there aren't enough of them for Hollywood to actually do it.
Online news still has a reputation problem. Newspapers that are going online-only are competing with sites that just can't figure out whether they're going to do serious news or not, and they're going to have to take the high road if they want to stay relevant to their readers. Here's a great synopsis of online news's maturity issue.
To wit, there's a big story locally about a high-profile college basketball player not getting arrested. Someone locally grabbed a photo that appeared to have the kid in handcuffs being escorted out of a store in the mall. The police and mall security both said they had no idea what that was about, but the store didn't call them at all that day.
I've successfully gone 13,171 days without getting arrested. Nobody's ever done a story on me not getting arrested.
Ben Huh makes a great point in the video in the top of this post: We don't need everybody to write the same story. We need people to be willing to share the basic story and do your own angle on what the story means to your readership.
Yesterday, there was a shooting at an Oregon mall. How many stories across the country are "this is what happened"? Well, CNN, NBC and The New York Times all ran bylined stories. They differ in their coverage only in that they spoke to different frightened people. Other than that, they're all just "this is what happened" pieces. The Huffington Post had the good sense to run a wire story.
Other news outlets across the country are running "here's what happened" stories, too. Why are news organizations putting manpower resources into that story? Run the wire piece, and put the manpower resources into analyzing what it means for your community. That's where news organizations can separate themselves.
For Syracuse, N.Y., what does it mean for the giant shopping mall we're hoping will bring people from hundreds of miles away? Will people stay away? Will the payroll increase as security needs increase? For Springfield, Mass., what does it mean for Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer with a large plant? Will more people want guns for self-defense in a situation like that, or will guns get harder to purchase?
This is where local journalism can set itself apart.
This has been a long rant, and I haven't answered the question I posed at the beginning: Where is news headed now?
The answer is, I don't know, but it's going to depend heavily on technology. I think tablets are going to be short-lived. I own one, and my primary use of it is as a reader and for light productivity tasks. I don't see that changing much for the tablet industry. Something is coming next; Mitch has some ideas.
If the news industry wants to survive, it needs to be willing to meet consumers at the delivery method they want to use. The organizations that do will survive.
Poynter has a really good piece up this week about Nate Silver and the future of bloggers as journalists (OK, so I oversold that a little, but still, that's sort of the gist).
Silver, as you probably know, predicted a landslide for President Obama in the electoral vote in this year's election. While news media were busy talking about the 1% difference in popular votes according to polls leading up to the election, Silver was figuring out which polls made the most sense in which states and predicted that Obama would have 313 electoral votes on election night.
Conservatives, and even some in the media, thought that was ridiculous. If their polling was so close, how could Obama win 313 electoral votes to 225?
Not only was Silver right about a landslide, he was off by 19. I don't know where that came from; maybe Virgina and Nevada (13 and 6 electoral votes, respectively).
Part of the bloggers vs. journalists debate over the years has been this. Bloggers are typically politically biased, while journalists are objective.
Here's the thing: That's not true. In The American Journalist, we find out that most (nearly three-quarters of them, in fact) journalists lean to the left. And while we might call that a liberal bias in media (particularly in print), content analyses show over and over that while some newspapers lean left on the editorial page while others lean right, as a whole, newspapers tend to pick on whoever's in office, regardless of their politics.
I'd argue that people who attack every story objectively are dull writers.
We want to hear both (or all, really) sides of every story, not no side of every story. And if the writer is honest with me about his or her viewpoint, it's easy to forgive a viewpoint injection. It's when the journalist injects a viewpoint under guise of objectivity that we have a problem. You can disagree with a writer, but you can't disagree with a piece of paper in front of you (well, you can, but it can't put up a coherent argument – it's a piece of paper).
Poynter also notes that the Times didn't take on a risk when they signed Silver; someone else had already dropped $700,000 on a couple of books. Good for him.
I'll ask you: Would you rather read a strictly objective article by a journalist with no viewpoint (nor the guts to take a side), or a biased article written by a smart person who uses all sides to tell you why s/he thinks s/he is right?
Give me smart, biased journalism any day. Just give me all the information so that I can make a decision, too.
Check out this video from strength coach Zach Even Esh. It's him holding a camera, pointing it at himself and his stuff. He's half-in, half-out of the frame much of the time. If you get motion sickness, it probably hurts worse than The Blair Witch Project did.
You know what, though? It's about Zach's passion, not about his camera skills. That's what I want to hear about. I don't need flashy editing, I need Zach's take on things.
On the blog post in which he used that video, there's a second video of a BMX race through Manhattan, much of it shot with a helmet cam. It's not winning any production awards, but it provides an energetic kick in the butt for the morning. Or your afternoon lull, whatever.
Check out Zach's post on not letting your passions slide. Go do something you're passionate about. Worry about the content of it, not the production value.
This video has an AP logo on it, but that's primarily because it was shot from a camera that happens to overlook the Connecticut River in a television newsroom. I don't think it's significantly different in quality than this one (other than the NSFW audio):
We've heard a lot about the Joplin, MO, tornado over the past month. Even with video, it's tough to understand until you know the places you're seeing, and you hear voices you know describe people you know and neighborhoods you know. When all the traffic lights are down, it takes three hours to get a cell phone call out, and the highway through town isn't accessible.
This is when even a privately held, monopoly newspaper in town can open up and say, "We can't be everywhere. Help us out." And people did.
For those unfamiliar, Demand owns eHow, Answerbag, and a handful of other sites that offer content and advertising. Sounds like a newspaper or magazine, right? Well, not exactly. The content on these sites is determined by what people are searching for, and is populated by people who can do a modicum of research and can string a couple of sentences together.
Danny Sullivan explains a little more about their revenue streams, but basically the way this works is that you search for something like "how to string a tennis racket" and Demand Media's computers say, "We could own that." So, "How To String A Tennis Racket" gets added to a list of articles available. It gets assigned a type of article and site, and based on those, a price point they'll pay for the article.
Someone who has been accepted as a writer says, "Hey, I could write that," and does. The article goes to a copy editor, the editor accepts the article or sends it back for rewrites, the writer either gives it up or re-writes it; if the article is re-written, the editor either accepts it or rejects it. If the article is accepted, the writer gets paid.
You may have guessed by now that I've done some writing for them. I'm not particularly proud of that writing, and don't generally include it in portfolios or writing samples because it's really mediocre work – the whole model revolves around the articles being relevant to searches, rather than enjoyable, in-depth writing.
But by and large, if you're asking how to string a tennis racket, you want to learn how to string a tennis racket, and if the piece is good enough to get that done, frankly, it's good enough to get it done.
I'm writing for them because they pay, and if you know how to do the research, they pay well. While $15 for a 400-500 word piece (call it 3 cents a word) is far less than a good publication would pay, it's far more than their competitors (Textbroker, for example, pays about a penny a word to its most highly qualified writers, and about a half-cent to its writers who demonstrate mediocre grammar skills).
I type in the neighborhood of 90-100 words per minute, which means that I can do the actual writing for an article for eHow in under 10 minutes. If I add 10 minutes for the research, I just made $15 for 20 minutes worth of work. Grab 3 or 4 articles that can be written on the same research, and you can clear $50 an hour for working for Demand. That's pretty good by any publication's standards, even if you're not racking up a portfolio you can be proud of (let's face it, even quality publications need someone to write up unremarkable content, and they do it for more like $8-$10 an hour).
So yes, you're definitely losing some quality in exchange for relevance, but that's been a problem on the web since before someone thought up the content farm idea. Journalism itself has fallen victim to the search engines to some extent. But frankly, if I want to know how to file for a copyright, I don't need to be wowed by the prose. Just tell me what to send where and how to figure out how much it's going to cost me.
Take five minutes to watch this presentation. Thanks to Susan Hall (Twitter) for passing it along.
First let me say that that newspaper is gorgeous. Decorate-your-wall gorgeous. And if you transfer those infographics to the web, they'd kill on digg. And yes, I'd probably buy it with some sort of consistency, because I like pretty things.
I wrote about 2,000 words about why I think this wouldn't work in the U.S., focusing on the fact that people who read newspapers like to read stories and people who write newspaper stories like having a place to show off their writing and more and more, the stories in this paper are being told with photos and graphics.
But I realized as I was writing, it's fairly obvious that readers don't enjoy reading quite as much as writers enjoy writing. So the fact that there might be no more than 200 words on a front page or 500 words in any interior spread isn't a problem for me.
I do, however, think it has a magazine-like quality that makes it less attractive as a daily news source and more appealing as something to look at slowly throughout the day or week. It makes me want to admire the artwork, not find out what's going on at school board meetings – I think I'd be distracted from the news.
But then, maybe that's just me. I like news, and I like the written word. Perhaps people would get more out of bigger graphics and shorter stories, though – USA Today has done very well on that model, and it's not a paper I pick up at all, which means I likely wouldn't be the target audience for something like this.
I haven't been moved to get a Kindle or a nook or any one of those other e-Reader deals, but I do have an iPod Touch (like an iPhone without the phone [or the camera]), and there is a free Kindle application (as there is for a PC, apparently).
I got invited to a book-club-among-friends. We were to read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
Now, this was mid-December. I had a couple of choices. I first got online and checked the library catalog. I could have run out to grab the last copy locally (one of the other attendees grabbed the other copy), but I get renewal guilt, so I probably would have returned it before we discuss it. The other, equally obvious option, was to run to a bookstore and get a copy – it's a pretty famous book, it wouldn't be hard to find.
Except it was mid-December, and I wasn't going to a retail outlet. No way, no how.
And then I remembered I had an email gift certificate to Amazon.com. And it was for a penny more than the Kindle version of the book. Hmm, convenient. I commenced to downloading it.
I read the whole thing on my iPod. Here are my thoughts.
Things I Liked
Readability: Awesome. The default font was a comfortable size and face, although I did have the option to change to several other fonts and to make the font larger or smaller. Navigating through was easy; you just push the current page to the left, and you were at the next page. You could make notes and add bookmarks, and as long as you were online, you could sync those to your PC version (and, I'm guessing, to your actual Kindle).
Scanning: Decent, not amazing. There were some obvious errors. Aslan (you'll recognize the name if you're a CS Lewis fan) frequently shows up as "Asian" and there are a few others. Fortunately, the scanning wasn't so bad that it was unreadable, it just wasn't perfect. And since publishing companies actually put these pages in an electronic format before they send books to be printed; why not just pay for that version?
Price: Amazon prices the Kindle version of books about $1 to $3 less expensive than the paperback versions. Of course, when you sync your Kindle (or Kindle app), you may have to worry about your book getting taken away – apparently there was a little rights issue with some authors' works.
Portability: I love being able to have this in my pocket. That alone might be worth the price of admission.
Things I Didn't Like
Pagination: I'm going to be discussing this book with other people, and I'm going to have no idea how to tell them where to look. The Kindle version put things in units, and I don't know what those units were. The Corrections came in at 9,971 of these units. So if I want to refer people to something that happens at, say, unit 4,156, I have to tell everybody else, what, go about 41% of the way into the book? I still have no concept of how long the book is, and now when I get there I'm going to have to ask how long it is and do the math on the fly.
Weight: For me, one of the joys of reading a book is the weight. It feels like something substantial. And as you make progress, the weight begins to shift from right to left. That's worth a lot to me. Apple says the Touch weighs 4.05 ounces (that's a smidge over a quarter pound). That's nothing like substantial, and the weight only shifts from right to left if you change hands.
I tend to check Google Trends in the morning. It's one of the things I do in terms of a morning coffee ritual when I get to work. For those not familiar, it's a list of the things people are searching for on Google; typically it's updated every hour or so, but sometimes it goes on for a few hours before it updates. Whatever.
Frequently, it's people wanting to watch one of last night's TV episodes. There's usually something that's been featured either on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Sometimes there's sports scores. And sometimes it's people in a large enough market searching for school closings.
Being a pop-culture-ophobe (OK, not really, but I'm pretty dim when it comes to this stuff), I'd never heard of either of these people. Which means that I had to wade through the search results to figure out who they were, never mind if they were actually dead.
Bieber, it turns out, is a 15-year-old kid who is some sort of pop sensation or something. He appears to be living and breathing and making teenage girls cry with his sensitivity instead of in mourning. This, apparently was not the first time the Internet killed Justin Beiber (via WikiAnswers:
Casey Johnson is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the founders of the Johnson & Johnson Company (if you've ever read a label on anything in a bathroom, you've heard of them). She's also the daughter of Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets.
Casey Johnson is, in fact, dead. She died this week at the age of 30, and at this writing, we're not sure why.
So, what did we learn from this? That Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes was correct: Newspapers (and other traditional news outlets) are going to turn into truth filters.
While we'll get most of our news from places like Twitter or Facebook (not necessarily those places, but places like them), where we select who we get the news from so the news will be relevant to us, we'll still need places like The New York Times to tell us whether the news we got is actually true.
The lesson: If you're not sure, check with someone you trust. Don't freak out over something you heard from someone who heard from somewhere that something may or may not have happened, which means it absolutely did.
Just like in many aspects of your life, you need to actually use your brain to use the Internet effectively.
Yesterday, I did sort of an entrepreneur-focused piece on Chris Hughes' visit to Syracuse. I went into the office (I work for syracuse.com, so the "we" and "our" refers to what we do there) and wound up re-writing from more of a company perspective, and I think everything's still relevant, so I wanted to share it here. Some of it is repeated, some of it is new, all of it is reworded in a different voice. I think these messages are relevant to many businesses, even bricks-and-mortar shops getting into social media for the first time.
Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's 3 4 founders and one of the brains behind my.BarackObama.com, spoke in Syracuse last night, and he had some good take-away messages.
A little background on Chris and Facebook
Facebook was founded in 2004 by three Harvard sophomores. They wanted a way to share essentially what they were doing with their friends in a more passive way – they didn’t want to have to pick up the phone or email people or find them in the dining hall to see what they were doing that night or that weekend. So they wrote some code and they were able to set their statuses and in three weeks, 6,000 people on campus had started accounts.
They opened up the platform to a few more schools, and found lots of interest, so they opened it more and more and now they have 325 million active users. Active users.
They were college sophomores in 2004, so at 19, that makes them in their early teens when the dot-coms when bust – they didn’t experience it the way other entrepreneurs and investors who are venturing into online did, so they look at the business model a lot differently than someone even five or ten years older than they are.
A side note: "Unfriend" is the word of the year. Chris said he and his friends have primarily used the term "defriend." Also "unfriend" appears in literature during the 17th century, but seems to have faded from vernacular use around 1659.
Focus on your product
One of the most important things a business can do is focus on its product. What do you do? What are you good at? Why do people come to you? Once you have that figured out, you need to make sure that for everything that comes in front of you, ask, "How does this affect my product?"
Our product is current, local, relevant information – news, entertainment, sports, classifieds, etc. – so Chris's suggestion would be, for every partnership opportunity, for every chance to build a new page, figure out how it enhances our core product. If the answer is, "it probably doesn't," don't do it.
Build a little bit at a time
A lot of companies spend a lot of time – and money – building something huge. They bring in advisers and investors even before anybody knows what they do, and then when they launch, they hope people come. If they don't, the companies then turn around and spend a lot more time and money. On marketing.
Try it the other way. Build something small. If nobody comes or if it's not as good as you thought it was, you've lost a few weeks and a little money, and you can scrap it. If it catches on, great. Then build the next little piece, and eventually it will grow into something big and great. It may be entirely different from what you initially planned, but your customers will have bought in at every level along the way.
We're not starting companies here, but we do roll out a lot of projects, some big, some small, and sometimes, we build too much at once. This is a good lesson.
What's next online: Participatory Web, transparency, crowdsourcing and filters
We're entering a new era of participation, that's for sure, and Web users are only going to get more participatory. Before Facebook and Twitter, there were other ways to participate – blogging platforms, Flickr, Geocities – and that's going to continue. Heck, our forums have been around since the stone age in Internet terms.
We're going to see that grow, and tools like Facebook Connect and OpenID are going to help. Any schmo with a domain will be able to implement a couple of lines of code and have people post stuff in a community format and have the fact that they're posting to schmowithadomain.com appear on their Facebook pages.
And while we're going to get more participatory, things aren't going to get chaotic.
"Transparency is good," Chris said, but you have to be careful with what you're transparent about and who you're transparent to. That shouldn't be news to any of you, but it's not just about people being transparent, it's about companies being transparent. Let people know what's going on – to some extent, of course. Don't give away your secrets, but don't hide in a dark corner away from the world.
He also cited an example from his work on the Obama campaign. Some people were using the platform created for support to oppose the candidate on some issues, but rather than shut them down, Obama addressed them, saying he disagreed, and the campaign let them keep using the platform. They let the people know they were hearing the dissent, but didn’t just turn it off. [There might be a lesson there for our comments.]
Crowds tend to be right, eventually. Facebook is available in over 70 languages, and has never hired a professional translator. They asked users to have at it, and users who knew both English and the other language voted for the best ones, and eventually those wound up "winning."
Chris didn't mention this, but earlier this year someone did a study and found that Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Wikipedia have roughly the same error rate. He also didn't mention James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds – essentially, if you get 50 people together and have them all guess the weight of a particular cow, some are going to be way high, some are going to be way low, but if you average all the guesses, 19 times out of 20 you wind up within a couple of pounds.
Filtering of information is one of the things we're starting to see, and that's going to get deeper. Your friends and the people you're interested in professionally are filtering information for you – you're going to increasingly get your news from social networks. This is going to increase the relevancy of information you get, but it's going to decrease the diversity of the information you get.
The mainstream media model is going to change, but it's still going to act as a truth filter. If you want to find out if Kanye West is indeed dead (the Internet definitely killed him a few weeks ago), you're going to check in with The New York Times, or some other trusted news outlet.
Some commentary on filtering
I think this last bit on filtering is important for us. We are a truth and information filter, and if we also put on some personality, we're going to become not only that truth filter, but also a friendly, relevant filter for people as well. Our staffs – whether we're out in the community evangelizing the product or not – are the face and personality of the company, and if we all bring a little something to what people see, they're going to like us.