We need more chaos in the news business

Clay Shirky argues we need for the news business to be more chaotic than it is because ” there are many more ways of getting and reporting the news that we haven’t tried than that we have.” Here are some excerpts from his latest essay:

Buy a newspaper. Cut it up. Throw away the ads. Sort the remaining stories into piles. Now, describe the editorial logic holding those piles together.

For all that selling such a bundle was a business, though, people have never actually paid for news. We have, at most, helped pay for the things that paid for the news.

But even in their worst days, newspapers supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news, for the minority of citizens who cared.

I could tell (my) students that when I was growing up, the only news I read was thrown into our front yard by a boy on a bicycle. They might find this interesting, but only in the way I found it interesting that my father had grown up without indoor plumbing.

News has to be subsidized because society’s truth-tellers can’t be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market. Real news—reporting done for citizens instead of consumers—is a public good.

A 30% reduction in newsroom staff, with more to come, means this is the crisis, right now. Any way of creating news that gets cost below income, however odd, is a good way, and any way that doesn’t, however hallowed, is bad.


I LOVE Twitter. It’s where I follow the insights and links of 131 like-minded souls. I tweet with some regularity but it’s the sum of these parts that makes Twitter so valuable/interesting to me.

paper.li compiles all of those tweets into a daily “paper.” While I prefer to follow my Twitter stream on my iPhone app or Tweeti on the MacBook, paper.li offers a better answer to: “What do you see in Twitter?!”

It’s like having 131 hand-picked editors, commentators and comedians, continuously scouring and curating the web just for me.

Some won’t make it to the new world

Michael Wolff speaking at MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit in London:

“The chickens are coming home to roost. Most of the people who run traditional media will not be the people to step in to this new world.

“There is a line and people are not going to get over it. It used to be, up until 18 months ago, ‘there is a line but I hope I get to retirement before I cross that line’. This recession has meant people really understand that they won’t.

“It’s been happening since before the internet – it’s not because of it.

“Every big-city newspaper in the U.S. is either in bankruptcy or will be in bankruptcy in the foreseeable future – that’s 12 months. The newspaper industry in the U.S. is over.

“This has happened again and again and again in every industry – new technology has come along, and you just can’t make the change; it almost inevitably never happens. It’s easier to start with people who have no historical bias.

“If you’ve spent your career in one technology, in one business model, it’s just not efficient to have to undo that.

I think Mr. Wolff is right and his comments [emphasis mine] remind me of a post by Jay Rosen from 5 years ago.

“An industry that won’t move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don’t have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise.

Jason Bourne will have one

British wit and tech daddy-o, Stephen Fry, on the iPad (just a couple of snippits from lengthy but excellent review):

“Newspapers, magazines, literature, academic text books, brochures, fliers and pamphlets are going to be transformed (poor Kindle). Specific dedicated apps and enhancements will amaze us. You will see characters in movies use the iPad. Jack Bauer will want to return for another season of 24 just so he can download schematics and track vehicles on it. Bond will have one. Jason Bourne will have one. Some character, in a Tron like way, might even be trapped in one.”

“How much easier it is to distrust, to doubt, to fold the arms and say “Not impressed”. I’m not advocating dumb gullibility, but it is has always amused me that those who instinctively dislike Apple for being apparently cool, trendy, design fixated and so on are the ones who are actually so damned cool and so damned sensitive to stylistic nuance that they can’t bear to celebrate or recognise obvious class, beauty and desire. The fact is that Apple users like me are the uncoolest people on earth: we salivate, dribble, coo, sigh, grin and bubble with delight.”

Ahem. I confess to all but the dribble. I try not to dribble.

Can you cover the new using only Twitter and Facebook?

Asking that question in one of our newsrooms will get you burned at the stake. The five journalists who will attempt to answer that question will be safely tucked away in a French farmhouse. With access only to Facebook and Twitter, they’ll try to verify the validity of stories (by cross-checking multiple feeds?) over a five day period. No smartphones, TV, radio or newspapers. They’ll be blogging their experiences but I couldn’t find a link. Will add it if I do.

Poll: 2 in 5 Americans read paper daily

One of the findings of an Adweek Media/Harris Poll taken in December 2009. Only 43% of US adults say they read a daily newspaper – either online or in print – almost every day, while 72% read one at least once a week and 81% read one at least once a month. The study found that one in ten adults say they never read a daily newspaper.

“Daily newspaper readership skews heavily toward the older age groups. Almost two-thirds of those ages 55+ (64%) say they still read a daily newspaper almost every day. Younger Americans read newspapers less often. Just more than two in five of those ages 45-54 (44%) read a paper almost every day as do 36% of those ages 35-44. However, less than one-fourth of those ages 18-34 (23%) say they read a newspaper almost every day and 17% in this age group say they never read a daily newspaper.

Though many newspapers are exploring the possibility of charging a monthly fee to read a daily newspaper’s content online, the poll results suggest this tactic is unlikely to work. Three-fourths of online adults (77%) say they would not be willing to pay anything to read a newspaper’s content online. Among the minority willing to pay, one in five online adults (19%) would only pay between $1 and $10 a month for this online content and only 5% would pay more than $10 a month.

The average monthly amount consumers are prepared to pay ranges from $3 in the US and Australia to $7 in Italy.

I want to be depressed by these findings but must confess that I do not read a hold-it-in-your-hands newspaper and I’ve never been better informed. I spend the first two hours of every days gobbling up news from dozens of sources. And much (most?) of the real news comes from newspapers that are bleeding red ink.

What will I be reading if/when those traditional sources are no long? I have no idea.

What might have been (and might be) for newspaper industry

In his final Stop the Presses column (for Editor & Publisher), Steve Outing revises history with a look at how things might have gone for the newspaper industry. And –since they didn’t– what to expect next. From the HTMHG list:

1. In 1994-95, newspaper executives recognize that the Web is something with the potential to rock their world, and increase R&D budgets significantly in order to plan for and begin building new businesses based on fast-developing new technology.

2. Learning from media history (e.g., TV started out as radio with a video image of the announcer speaking into a microphone), newspaper leaders decide not to repeat it this time around. They direct new-media R&D staff to design new online services that create original content and new utilities — things that are not possible in print but are online.

3. Fat and happy with enviable profit margins, newspaper companies’ leaders take note of the wave of Internet start-up companies in the late 1990s. Business development executives with technology experience are brought in from outside the newspaper industry to identify the most promising trends and start-up companies, and begin making acquisitions and/or significant investments, in a big way.

You get the idea. I do dread the day I read a similar “what might have been” about the broadcasting industry.

Newspaper ads: Bought or sold?

I don’t think I’ve ever met a newspaper advertising salesperson. Given that (until recently?) newspapers are jammed with ads, doesn’t that seem odd? During my Radio Years, I wrote countless commericals and it was common to start from an ad torn from the local newspaper.

My sense back then was that businesses “bought” newspaper ads rather than having to be “sold.” A grocery store HAD to have the weekly specials in the local paper.

I suspect far more time an effort went into the layout of the ad than the selling.

If we have any current or former newspaper sales people reading this, leave us a comment. I’d love to know more about the sales process and how it has changed or is changing.

Obits on TV

We’ve been fiddling around with the Internet for about 15 years and tried lots of different ideas. Streaming audio of debate from the state legislature; oral arguments from the state supreme court; online database of accident reports format he state highway patrol; and –as the say– the list goes on. One idea could never get off the ground was Obits Online. This was back in the late ’90’s as I recall.

Funeral homes would log in to our online database and post funeral announcements. The public could search by name, date, city, etc etc. We pitched the funeral home associations in Missouri and Iowa (maybe some other states, I don’t recall).

The idea never got off the ground because most funeral homes were still trying to figure out their fax machines and were convinced the people in their communities were not using computers and were unlikely to do so any time soon.

I bring up this stillborn digital baby after spotting this story (AdAge.com) about a TV station in Michigan that’s running on-air and online obituary ads after three of the region’s four daily newspapers reduced publication to three days a week.

obt-screenshot“For $100, the station will run the deceased’s name and photo on-air and publish a full-length obituary on ObitMichigan.com. Full-screen graphics listing names of people who have passed away are broadcast during the local station’s morning and noon shows Monday through Friday, as well as on weekend morning shows. Viewers are pushed to the website for more information about the deceased as well as funeral-services information.

The station’s owner, Meredith Corp., expects to roll the concept out to its other stations and says it is also in licensing discussions with other station groups.

At $100 an obituary, it’s not clear that WNEM or Meredith has really tapped a massive vein of cash. Revenue from obituaries “is a teeny subset” of overall newspaper-classified revenue, said Mort Goldstrom, VP-advertising at the Newspaper Association of America. Fees charged by papers can range from as high as $1,000 for a major metro to a few hundred dollars for a midmarket paper. And many small community and weekly newspapers still run obituaries for free.

WNEM started running obituaries in August at no charge, to get people familiar with the service and to work out any software bugs. Since launching as a paid service in early September, executives said, the station has over 700 obituaries in its system.

The new obituaries are also prompting a change in the way people go about their daily routine, he said. “The biggest issue that we have is the elderly people that don’t have the ability to pay for internet access or don’t have a computer. Now they see it flash on TV and those that don’t have a computer can call the funeral home and ask for information,” Mr. Luczak said.”

Having the TV station to promote and leverage the idea is an important component. I hope they make some money and provide a useful service.

“Mass Roots Marketing”

Interesting post at AdAge.com on hyperlocal media and how one big media company –in this case NBC– is attempting to play “at the intersection of advertising, marketing and programming, potentially creating new kinds of content in the burgeoning local arena.”

“We’ll explore what the best solutions are to connect across all platforms. Maybe it’s finding a great blogger who lives in that community who becomes an on-air personality. It’s creating things for people to feel more connected to their community.”

“Local media is going to be the intersection of utility and entertainment and everyday life. As things are globalizing, local becomes even more vital. You have the same brands, the same food, etc., wherever you go now. Local is what makes things different; it gets to what people love about their neighborhood, why they decided to live there.”

“You start with an event or something that happens in a small community in one locale and you’re looking at it to amplify out from that. NBC Local is well-placed to help big marketers to put those new kinds of programs in place. You’ll still have people buying local 30-second spots, but more and more also putting together programs that make an impact on a very local level and have that radiate out in significant ways.”

Uh, isn’t this what local broadcasters and newspapers are doing? Or should be doing? Or used to do? Are the Big Guys planning on doing “local” better than local media?

Stay tuned.