Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Frustrated by Wasington coverage

Even from short remove – only about a month since I was actually engaged with a Washington bureau myself – I have to say that watching the Beltway press corps behave generally isn't pretty.

As a citizen trying to learn what matters in my government, it feels to me like too many of the reporters who ought to be finding out and telling me are instead obsessed with issues like whether pool reporters will always follow the president when he takes the girls for ice cream (who cares?), whether they should agree to anonymous briefings (no), and whether the latest entirely predictable Republican criticism spells the end of Obama's promised bipartisan approach (oh, please).

When they do get down to writing stories, the result too often feels like sushi – sliced so thin you can see through it. They focus on trivia and incrementalism, each tiny step reported new atop eight repetitious graphs of yesterday's incrementalism. They quote people anonymously praising their boss. Now and then you spot something labeled AP IMPACT (all caps), which is at least useful because it signals you to beware of a marginally interesting issue that has been trumped up beyond its worth because the AP got the report leaked first. And so on.

(It won't surprise you to hear that I find the McClatchy bureau reporting far superior in most regards, though there are some folks there inclined to follow the herd, too).

Does this sound harsh? Well, I'm frustrated.

May I remind you of something I told McClatchy newsrooms for years? Even if you think the way I feel about this is my fault, it's your problem. If you don't learn to satisfy changing needs and demands of the audience, somebody else will.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Journalists as curators

You hear a lot nowadays about how journalists can serve as curators of certain subjects, locales or topics, but not much discussion about just what that means or how to do it.

I happen to believe the concept is ripe with possibilities, harnessing skills and instincts good journalists already have in providing real value to audiences who are drowning in unfiltered information.

Now Mindy McAdams has posted a quick list of key concepts.
It's all worth reading. Here's a taste:

If a museum curator has access to 10,000 small clay tokens from ancient Iraq and Syria, how many — and which ones — should appear inside the glass case? If a journalist is going to provide links to reliable sources about planning for retirement (or breast cancer, or choosing a college), which are the best, clearest, and most up-to-date?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

At the broadband trough

Unsurprisingly, Jeff Jarvis and a host of online media guys are mounting a call for government subsidies for broadband expansion. I think there's a place for that, but not nearly the place they want to carve out.

Public spending on infrastructure is generally a good thing in my book, one of the bedrock things government should do for people because it doesn't always happen on its own -- even in a free-market utopia. Honest libertarians excepted, I don't hear anybody making a principled call for private sector interstate highways, for instance.

That's why I agree that making broadband available where it's not now – rural areas, mainly, including much of Alaska – is a good thing. (Disclosure: I own a house without a good broadband source in the Sierra Nevada foothills; this would be good for me.)

But should the government be spending billions on delivering services that are already generally available and likely to get much better on their own?

Seth Hansell in the NYT Bits Blog makes a pretty good for why generic broadband subsidy is probably a bad, wasteful idea.

Here's a taste of the argument:

... as I look at it, the noise about a broadband gap is hooey. With new cable modem technology becoming available, 19 out of 20 American homes eventually will be able to have Internet service that is faster than any available now anywhere in the world. And that’s without one new cable being laid.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The new information gatekeepers

Wouldn't it be something if the vaunted promise of the world wide web to deliver diverse voices and robust competition of ideas actually ends up limiting choices and concentrating intellectual power in ever fewer hands?

Absurd, right? Well, maybe not.

Nicholas Carr argues here that things seem to be going just that way. Already, he asserts, the web has gone from being a "radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one ..." He describes a new information triumvirate – the web, Google and Wikipedia – as the most powerful arbiters of what we learn.

It’s hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result. What’s much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path - the path of least resistance.

I can think of lots of objections to that thesis. Despite some notable failures (China comes to mind) Google hasn't thus far demonstrated any overt or obvious bias in the way it sorts and displays information. (The bias could be there, of course; do you understand how the search algorithms work?)

And Wikipedia is the very essence of multi-source information, isn't it? Well, yes, I guess. Although Jimmy Wales is now talking about limiting the ways information gets added. He's a good guy, too, as far as I know – but do I want his judgment determining what ranks first on most Google searches?

More tellingly, what happens when Larry and Sergey aren't running Google? What happens after Jimmy Wales? Is a world grown ever more dependent on single-source information -- Just Google it. -- really a smarter, more intellectually independent place?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Growing hunger for information is good news for jounalism

Tonight the text of President Obama's inaugural address is the most popular highlight on Yahoo News, and doubtless that's true elsewhere, as well.

In an age of ubiquitous video, remixes, and 24/7 television, what makes a plain old text document so popular?

Here's my guess: people are desperate for reassurance, and they're willing to spend the energy it takes to read for themselves and look for the answers they're after.  This is good news for anybody in the business of public service journalism.

I don't mean to suggest the hunger is restricted to text, or certainly not to original source documents only. But you only have to look back to the astonishing numbers of people who watched online video of Obama's 40-minute speech on race to realize the depth of the appetite for substantive information.

Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats famously united the country in a shared information experience, bringing reassurance and hope to millions. I think this president will be working hard to use new tools in trying to do the same.

There is opportunity here for journalists.

SPECTRE over the news

Help. We're trapped in a James Bond movie.

In the last two days we've learned that a mysterious Mexican cellphone billionaire is investing hundreds of millions in the New York Times. Now I read that a former KGB agent has bought The Evening Standard in London.

I don't really know who is editing Newsday (or for how long), who really owns the Star Tribune, what's going to happen to the Rocky or the PI.

The clock is ticking, but 007 always gets to SPECTRE in time.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Link journalism in the Northwest

Publish2 editor Josh Knorr has an illuminating post of the p2 blog today describing how a handful of Washington State journalists quickly home-brewed a plan to share coverage and links to stories about the flooding there.

Working collaboratively, all were able to provide far broader coverage and more detail than any could on its own. This web page from the Kitsap Sun shows how some of the linking looked. I know the Tacoma News Tribune and Seattle Times were trading links in previously verboten ways, as well, though I don't know the details.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Tools for news

Tools for news

As the site instructs, "Don't be a tool. Use one."

Thanks, newsless.org for the pointer.

Bad news, good news -- in context

You may be interested in Jeff Jarvis' collection of "Bad news, good news" facts about the news business. As you might guess, his list is heavier on the bad news, so I tried to help by adding some good news in a comment, which I'm pasting in here:

I can’t speak for “the newspaper industry,” but I can report on the state of affairs at my former employer, McClatchy.

What these individualized statistics and measurements fail to show is that companies like McClatchy are already far down the road to transformation. (I write from memory and approximately; I am not a spokesman for the company).

In 2000, about 97% of McClatchy’s revenues came from daily newspapers. Today it’s less than 70%, with the remainder coming mainly from online and other digital operations, niche print and targeted marketing. While print advertising revenues are falling (at least partly due to economic conditions) online ad revenue at McClatchy continues to grow by double digits, even in recession.

In the larger cities where surveys are available, McClatchy’s total audience reach (print plus unduplicated online) often exceeds 70% of adults 18 and older each week. It’s likely higher in smaller markets, where the print component remains somewhat stronger. Indeed, the total audience for information produced in McClatchy newsrooms has never been larger. The company’s sales forces are being retrained and compensation structures changed to optimize their ability to sell that portfolio of audience reach, not just ads in daily papers.

Meanwhile, the company’s cost structure has been radically altered, reduced by more than $350 million in the past two years alone. Much of that has come from staff reduction, but a large and growing percentage represents efficiencies like out-sourced production work, accounting and billing, and even printing. This process will continue as technology continues to make further efficiencies available.

The company also enjoys productive relations with third parties, like CareerBuilder (of which it is a part owner), Classified Ventures (likewise), Yahoo (a strategic cross-selling and ad serving partner), aggregators like DayLife and Outside.In, and many others. These can work both to reduce operating costs and extend revenue opportunities into new realms.

In short, statistics about falling daily newspaper circulation and the like are by themselves of little value in projecting the future. You should use care in over-interpreting these.

You also should not ignore the fact that the economic collapse that has ruined many businesses has also hurt news company performance and obscured much of the progress outlined above. When conditions improve, even marginally, you will see dramatic reflection in the capacity of companies like McClatchy to move forward toward their historic mission: public service journalism.