Friday, December 28, 2007

A thousand words

John Moore captured some of the most compelling images of the Bhutto assassination, many presented here in an arresting narrated slide show at the NYT. To me, this photo made moments before the gunshots and bomb blast makes achingly clear why her death is such a huge loss for those who seek modernization and peace in the Islamic world.

Just as I was planning to post it, I came across another "worth a thousand words" example, this one an Economist article about three of the most important infographics in history. One charts causes of death of British soldiers in support of a Florence Nightingale crusade to improve conditions in barracks. Another combines time and money on two different axes in suggesting that the cost of wheat was too high compared to wages. "

The last is an example Edward Tufte described as "the best statistical graphic ever drawn. : an illustration that shows all manner of data about Napoleans advance and retreat from Moscow:

Minard's chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army's movement, and the number of troops remaining. The widths of the gold (outward) and black (returning) paths represent the size of the force, one millimetre to 10,000 men. Geographical features and major battles are marked and named, and plummeting temperatures on the return journey are shown along the bottom.

The chart tells the dreadful story with painful clarity: in 1812, the Grand Army set out from Poland with a force of 422,000; only 100,000 reached Moscow; and only 10,000 returned. The detail and understatement with which such horrifying loss is represented combine to bring a lump to the throat. As men tried, and mostly failed, to cross the Bérézina river under heavy attack, the width of the black line halves: another 20,000 or so gone. The French now use the expression “C'est la Bérézina” to describe a total disaster.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Velocity matters

Perhaps you saw the interesting article in the Sunday NYT entitled Google Gets Ready to Rumble With Microsoft.

Buried deep in the piece is one lesson that seems especially appropriate for us: velocity matters. I know the pace of change and especially our time-to-market on technology/online issues is a common frustration. I hope you know that our new steering committee is working hard with McClatchy Interactive to improve that performance, chiefly by focusing on key priorities and untangling communications. Your continuous feedback to steering committee reps – including me – is essential.

And some of the bottlenecks can be navigated on your own, by speeding up decision-making and willingness to experiment at your own site. Too often, we fall prey to caution, to paralysis-by-analysis, to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It sounds simpleminded, but ready-fire-aim often is the soundest decision. We can change it later; we can iterate; we can fine tune.

The thing we cannot do is dawdle.

Here's the relevant portion of the Google/Microsoft article, though it's all good:

Google’s quicksilver corporate culture can be jarring for some employees, even for Mr. Schmidt. He recalls that shortly after joining the company and its young founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, he was frustrated that people were answering e-mail on their laptops at meetings while he was speaking.

“I’ve given up” trying to change such behavior, he says. “They have to answer their e-mail. Velocity matters.”

VELOCITY does, indeed, matter, and Google deploys it to great effect. Conventional software is typically built, tested and shipped in two- or three-year product cycles. Inside Google, Mr. Schmidt says, there are no two-year plans. Its product road maps look ahead only four or five months at most. And, Mr. Schmidt says, the only plans “anybody believes in go through the end of this quarter.”

Google maintains that pace courtesy of the cloud. With a vast majority of its products Web-based, it doesn’t wait to ship discs or load programs onto personal computers. Inside the company, late stages of product development are sometimes punctuated by 24-to-48-hour marathon programming sessions known as “hack-a-thons.” The company sometimes invites outside engineers to these sessions to encourage independent software developers to use Google technologies as platforms for their own products.

New features and improvements are made and tested on Google’s computers and constantly sprinkled into the services users tap into online. In the last two months alone, eight new features or improvements have been added to Google’s e-mail system, Gmail, including a tweak to improve the processing speed and code to simplify the handling of e-mail on mobile phones. A similar number of enhancements have been made in the last two months to Google’s online spreadsheet, word processing and presentation software.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Full fat, extra cholesterol

To succeed in the emerging media landscape, we need to be sure we're providing value-added information – information that makes people's lives better, that they can't find elsewhere.

Yes, TMZ generates giant traffic numbers with it's combination of pop culture fact and fantasy while more substantive sites lag behind. Yes, large numbers will watch Dancing With the Stars at the expense of NOVA.

That's not likely to change, but "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" isn't a strategy we can live with. We're a public service journalism company. It's what we do, and if we can't find a profitable way to keep doing it, there's no reason for there to be a McClatchy Co.

If there were no consequences, many of us would probably start dinner with dessert and follow-up with cheese nachos. Fortunately for us, many intelligent people recognize thatgood health and long life requires nutritional meals as well – and the same is true of their information consumption.

In that light, have a look at the video below from the League of Conservation Voters. In my mind, the issue of climate crisis is a settled scientific question, the consequences of both action and inaction siginficant and the need for wide debate imperative. But look at these results: in 2007, five leading broadcast journalists asked presidential contenders 2,275 questions at 120 different venues. No more than 24 touched even remotely on global climate issues.

That's not a nutritious meal – and therein lies opportunity for us. Add value and nutrition to the information diet. There's an appetite for it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It all starts with content

Andy Perdue and crew at the Tri-City Herald's online department celebrated a milestone in fine form recently. For the 100th edition of their Northwest Winecast production, they introduced audiences to the notion of "sabrage" – cutting the top off sparkling wine with a sabre.

Here's the past of Andy's message I liked best:

Last night, I got an email from the owner of [the Winecast sponsor]. He said he thought this episode was great and he was heading to the store to buy some sparkling wine and a machete so he could learn how to do this.

He ended the email by saying, "Thank you for letting me be the sponsor."

Those eight words sum up our goal: to produce content so interesting and compelling, our advertisers are thanking us for the opportunity to have access to our audience.

It all starts with content.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jessica Hagy, correspondent

If you haven't checked out the contributions from Jessica "Indexed" Hagy at our alt.campaign feature on McClatchy DC, by all means do so, right now.


I'm sorry for the scarcity of posts here lately. I've been preoccupied with family needs for the last month or so and work is being handled as triage. I expect to have more time and mental energy before too long.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

You say you want a revolution?

Revolution is not for the faint of heart.

Two central truths about our business become clearer every day: first, that there is an enduring need and opportunity for public service journalism; and second, that the current transition, involving everything from audience relationships to revenue models, is indeed revolutionary.

It is our good fortune to be the generation entrusted with this rebirth, though not everybody will agree with that. Some of you will think we’re going too far as we transform our operations, priorities and relationships. Many will criticize us for moving too slowly. Tragically, some of you will give up and quit too soon.

But there’s a profoundly important role in the evolving information ecology for the journalism of verification, organized responsively in an outside/in relationship with audiences, drawing upon networked resources, founded on trust and reputation. We must be prepared to do pretty much whatever it takes to our business operations and organizational charts to get us there.

Nearly every day I discuss changes that would have been heresy for newspaper editors even 10 years ago. Things that once seemed like tenets now look like artifacts. The pace of change and the momentum of the imperatives we face truly are disorienting.

Our stock price is in the tank. Bummer. (I've been accumulating McClatchy stock longer than most of you). Year-over-year revenues have been declining. Businesses that were mainstays of our prosperity – Detroit car markers, real estate brokerages – are themselves in turmoil. Wall Street is not happy; the relentless downward trend is disappointing, no doubt about it. Investors who own millions of shares and employees who own hundreds all share the discomfort.

Some of this is the particular pain of the housing meltdown and related economic woes. Beyond that, many of our business fundamentals really are different now. As a result newspaper publishing is moving from being one of the country’s last vertically integrated industries to being something else – a model being invented as we go.

Some of the restructuring is easy enough to understand, even if it feels bad. People who answer phones in circulation are worth every bit as much as people in newsrooms, of course – but their jobs are not equally central to the mission of producing public service journalism. We serve our mission better the more efficient we become.

So we’re a mission-driven company, right? How do you decide what’s central? Does it matter if you compile sports agate and NBA game summaries on your own copy desk? If the state public offices commission has a transparent, easily accessible campaign finance database online, should you try to duplicate that or just link it? If there are already 50 photographers covering a wildfire, when do you send your own?

These questions keep getting harder. If the future of the enterprise depends on continuing to grow audience (and it does), is it right to reassign staffers from features to a social networking site for young mothers? In a culture that prides itself on depth and subtlety of its journalism, how much can you justify reassigning reporters to early-morning shifts to populate the website with breaking news for early risers?

Though it be littered with such tough questions, I am not afraid of our future. Every day I watch McClatchy newsrooms adapt and extend, producing sustained public service journalism for audiences that have never been bigger. These growing audiences are at the heart of both our mission and our business model, a congruence for which I give thanks daily. (It need not necessarily have been so). We’re getting better at selling and profiting from them, even as we get more efficient and less expensive to operate; those lines will cross, and meanwhile our legacy business produces comfortable profit margins to see us across the changes.

The music’s not in the piano. Storytellers always occupy a central role in society, and there is no story more compelling than the truth.