Saturday, April 29, 2006

Are you ready for the 'newspaper i-Pod?'

The final speaker at ASNE convention in Seattle this year was a local celebrity: Microsoft boss Bill Gates. Much to my surprise, he had something important to say specifically to newspaper editors.

Gates used the occasion to introduce software that will debut as a built-in feature of the new Microsoft Vista OS in January called Windows Presentation Format (WPF) . It's essentially a toolkit that allows programmers to build online/offline software that will display publications (or, I suppose, anything) in tailored formats that can closely resemble printed text, right down to the fonts. (This AP photo shows the demo at the convention.) Users navigate by "turning pages" rather than scrolling, make notes in the electronic margin, search, clip and email selections. Publications will be downloaded to users' drives and thus can be read without a live internet connection and refreshed whenever users are online. It's not a PDF or web archive. It's much richer.

The Vista OS is due in January, and Gates said developers kits for working in WPF will be available by late summer. The NYT got an early copy and has its version – called TimesReader – in workable form now.

The Seattle P-I had a story about the demo, as did the Seattle Times, here and E&P, here.

Perhaps most impressive to me was the testimonial of Tom Bodkin, design director and AME at the New York Times, who said he'd be working on their prototype implementation and has become "a total convert." Particularly when used on a handheld, tablet-device of some kind, the experience of reading in this format is nearly as good as text on paper -- and has many advantages once-a-day printed publications can't touch. Some of the advantages are obvious – text can be updated and changed constantly, whenever the reader in online – and some less so. For instance, clicking on an ad can bring up a richly animated video-style commercial. Probably it could easily open to full video, as well. WPF also incorporates the capacity to sense what size screen you are using and adjust the display to take fullest advantage of it. In the demo, anyhow, it was impressive.

I talked to Bodkin briefly afterward and met the "product manager" for TimesReader, who promised to get in touch. When I find out more I will post it here.

Both Gates and Bodkin talked about how holding the tablet or reader in your hands made reading "natural and effortless" in a way no fixed screen can match. (Readers typically make constant, microadjustments to the book or page they are holding to read, shifting the distance or angle to get it just right. This apparently comes close to that.)

Would a well-crafted, handheld tablet displaying newspaper copy in this new format have the capacity to become the "newspaper iPod" some have dreamed of? Here's hoping.
– Howard Weaver

Monday, April 24, 2006

Last week I found this interesting piece from The Economist, one of the main points of which is: "... unlike previous eras in the annals of communication, in which power resided with owners of the machinery, the Web era is quickly becoming all about its participants. 'This has profound implications for traditional business models in the media industry, which are based on aggregating large passive audiences and holding them captive during advertising interruptions.'"

I'd be interested in your feedback.

If you want to read the entire thing:
Among the audience
Apr 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition
The era of mass media is giving way to one of personal and participatory media, says Andreas Kluth. That will profoundly change both the media industry and society as a whole

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tough times, bright prospects

Let’s say this straight out: these are tough times at newspapers.

Start with the uncertainty and anxiety of being in a phase transition for the news business. Not knowing what the future holds or whether it will continue to value what we do is scary. We make decisions every day about a future we cannot know. We go to sleep every night less certain about tomorrow than at any time in the last 30 years.

And at the moment, we must do so in an operating environment of slow ad sales and stalled revenues. I’m convinced this is mainly a cyclical (and temporary) downturn like those that have always punctuated the newspaper business – not the leading edge of some inescapable secular change that's beyond our reach or response. Nonetheless, it sucks, and we have to manage through it – often by reducing expenses, tightening belts and curtailing spending.

Add to all this the new X-factor in our world at McClatchy: the increased scrutiny that comes with our bid for Knight Ridder, and the vastly higher stakes for which we’re playing. This, we have already learned, multiplies all the normal pressures and intensifies concern about our performance. We don’t run McClatchy with a short-term perspective – but performance has short-term consequences nonetheless, and there’s no denying that we have felt some already.

These pressures feel especially frustrating right now because they come at a time of extraordinary opportunity and promise. In my gut I know we are on the threshold of far better times – an environment where we have mastered new platforms and technologies to extend our reach, where citizens recognize the value our “journalism of verification” brings, where that all adds up to revenues that comfortably support us.

I also know the colleagues who will shortly join us from those 20 Knight Ridder newspapers and their Washington bureau will make us stronger, better and more productive. Together we’ll create a leading 21st century news company, and in doing so prove that real journalism is central to any media landscape that may emerge. We will find better ways to multiply our strengths online and with the wire service and through other alternative deliveries. We’ll get better at knitting all that together. We will forge closer, more trusting relations with audiences – real people, not partisans and advocates – and their support will sustain us as we serve them.

I have more confidence in our future today than I did 10 years ago. There’s proof-of-concept all around us, and our efforts to extend those winning ideas throughout the company are accelerating.

Some of this is very hard, but we can navigate through without blunting the forward progress. There’s some house-to-house fighting through the budgets yet to be done, but it comes with the promise of transformation on the other side.
– Howard Weaver
Powerful video-online-print collaboration at TCH

Here's a lesson in interactivity and web-print cross-promotion from the advertising side of the house: a fun and successful initiative from the Tri-City Herald that supports the paper's yard sale advertising effort as it kicks off for summer.

It starts with an interactive yard sale map where you can search by location in a listing, by clicking on a map or doing a refined search in a database. (Caution: it didn't work on my Mac with the Safari browser, but Firefox works fine.)

To help promote the effort, the TCH team picks an advertised yard sale at random each week to get a suprise visit from the Tri-City Herald Yard Sale Team,which delivers free coffee, donuts and balloons and searchs the sale for the best bargain a dollar can buy. This is all videotaped and delivered in an online "Yardcast," which is a lot of fun. You can see one here.

The team also produces a weekly video with tips and tricks supplied by veteran area yard salers who tell you how to make your sale more successful. An example is linked from the same Yardcast page, available here.

This is a powerful build on the TCH's long strong of video successes, anchored of course by their powerhouse high school football videos -- which can draw more viewers during football season than all three local television sportscasts combined.

The Herald does all this with a small but creative and dedicated staff. Have a look at the quality they're achiving with modest hardware expense and talent all drawn from exisiting staff.

Doesn't it make you think there's more you could do with your staff?
– Howard Weaver

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Q&A with the NYT

Bill Keller answers questions from readers and others in a online chat that the Times says will become a regular feature. It plows a lot of ground that will familiar to those of us who read Romenesko, the trade press and one another's newspapers. Nonetheless, there are many nuggets, some of which I've appeneded here. The whole piece is available by clicking here.

Keller: Not long ago a colleague at the Boston Globe convened an informal committee and tried to list the standards that we aspire to. Here's what she came up with:

  • We believe in a journalism of verification rather than assertion, meaning we put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny.
  • We believe in transparency -- that is, we aim to tell you how we know what we know, to attribute our information as much as possible to named sources, to rely on documentary evidence when we can. As your math teacher might have said, we "show our work."
  • We are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with an agenda or a pre-conceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests. We do not work in the service of a party, or an industry, or even a country. When there are competing views of a situation, we aim to reflect them as clearly and fairly as we can.
  • We don’t do this as a hobby but as a living. Whether you call it a craft, or a profession, or an occupation, it is something we take seriously, and we demand levels of training and experience that we seek to pass on from one generation to the next.

Q. The colorful lead is the bane (or at least one of the banes) of my time spent with The Times. So often, I have tried quickly to get the gist of a story (this happens in the Sports section more often than in the news sections) only to find that I must read something like "it was a dark and dreary night" before finding the point, or the score, or even a notion of what the article is about.

Whatever happened to the inviolate rule that a lead was 35 words or fewer, telling us where, why, what or who?

-- Peter C. Boulay, Bronx, N.Y.

A. As the sun blazed above the snow-lacquered peaks of the Hindu Kush, the weary editor flipped down his clip-on sunglasses and booted up his laptop.

It had been a long week, a soul-sapping, disorienting and yet strangely satisfying week.

Past the simple campsite where he awaited his digital connection to the modern world flowed all the human mystery of the East: the women shrouded in burqas of azure, or possibly cerulean, he was not too good on blues; the camel-borne warlords draped with belts of bullets; the shoeless boys in filthy "I Heart New York" T-shirts; and all the rest, all separated by semicolons and swaddled in colorful cliches.

The computer flickered to life. The keys clicked like castanets until up came a complaint from the northern part of a far-off metropolis at the eastern end of a troubled superpower. The editor read. He frowned. Then he squinted down at the keyboard and typed:

"Amen, Mr. Boulay. Amen."

–Howard Weaver

Saturday, April 15, 2006

An advocate for urgency

(This post first appeared as a comment to an earlier observation below.
It was promoted to this location to make sure everybody sees it).

Good criticism. I certainly don't try to be driving people to jump off cliffs. I'll keep that in mind next time I hit the alarm button. But then again, I do think that the industry has lacked a sense of urgency and that if they do not embrace rather than resist change, then they will be left behind. And I would regret that. So is it equally a disservice to be too comforting, to give the impression that there is time to bide on these issues? I'm a journalist, a newspaperman, and next a journnalism professor. Clearly, I value the craft. But I do believe that if the craft does not update itself, it is in danger. If I'm too loud or strident on that -- and I know that I certainly can be -- then I take the criticism.
– Jeff Jarvis

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Q: How many kids with ADD does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Hey! Let's go ride bikes!

Even when I'm squeezed for time, I usually read two small magazines: New Scientist, and The Week. I'm more likely to spend time with them than the New Yorker (which I always do enjoy when I get to it) or even the astonomy magazines that pile up by my recliner.

What those two have in common is brevity and a well-defined theme. Each is a kind of overview or survey. Immodestly enough, New Scientist bills itself as "The week's best ideas," while The Week proclaims itself "All you need to know about everything that matters." With them, I can spend a half-hour or 45 minutes and feel like I accomplished something. (I've been reading "The Rise of American Democracy" forever – it's 992 pages – and 45 minutes there doesn't feel like any progress at all.)

I think we need to help our readers feel some of that satisfaction reading the paper: the sense that you can get through it and come away satisfied, even if you don't read everything. Busy people need points of exit as well as points of entry into the paper.

What kinds of techniques can accomplish that?
– Howard Weaver
Extension & integration in Tacoma

Chris Hendricks and I spent a productive hour with executives from the Tacoma News Tribune this week reviewing progress they have made across a wide front of print/online integration and extension projects. Similar efforts are underway throughout the company in various iterations; rarely are so many moving ahead so well together. Here are some highlights from my notes:

  • Podcasts are being used to provide behind-the-scenes reports with writers and photographers. Any way we can share "how I got that story" and other informative reports with readers will help build credibility and increase transparency. Learning how much work your staffers go through to produce a detailed investigative report, or how the creative team worked to present a photo package on deadline will help demonstrate how we add value to information, a key differentiation for our news reports.
  • Although still new and limited in number, blogs have quickly established themselves as a leading draw for TNT online. (It probably doesn't hurt to have your local football team go to the Super Bowl). In addition to sports, they blog food, real estate and nightclubs. A shared editors' blog, military affairs blog and guide to local online sites are soon to come.
  • A continuous news desk, located in a refurbished pod in the middle of the newsroom, has animated live news updates for the website. Staffed starting at 6 a.m., the operation keys on weather and traffic for early drive-time reports as well as breaking news.
  • Photo galleries featuring staff work and photo submissions from readers both help attract traffic. A dozen reader/photogs were selected to help document hourly segments of a recent "Day in the Life" photo feature on the site and in the paper.

TNT continues to extend in other ways, with numerous staffers participating in radio programs, appearing in classes and at civic functions, and organizing community participation events. The paper is currently gearing up to sponsor a community forum on the topic of gay marriage, with the goal of being able to convene and host the event within 48-hours of an anticipated Washington Supreme Court ruling.

The take-away here is that sustained effort on a variety of projects is key to building momentum for change, especially in early stages. Audiences for many initiatives will be small, particularly at first, and even newsroom constituencies may be limited. But if we keep trying – reenforcing success and reengineering when we miss – we can make real progress to meeting changing audience needs.
– Howard Weaver
A human face for pandemic flu reporting

Tri-City Herald
reporters worked with interactive colleagues to produce a series of simple video introductions that auguments a recent series of prospects for pandemic flu in the paper's Mid-Columbia region. Their reports (which can be found here) sometimes presented information independent of textual reports, but more often were simply introductory. Even in those cases, however, the effort added considerably to the presentation, helping give a human face to the reporting and introduce staffers to their audience. The Herald – which was a company leader in putting high school sports video online – continues to get a big bang for a small video investment, and they keep pushing the fences.
– Howard Weaver

Sunday, April 09, 2006

An "unconference" about saving news
(and a word about Jeff Jarvis)

In addition to the pointer in the post below, Dave Zeeck writes to ask if I have seen this discussion at BuzzMachine about a Philadelphia conference on the future of news. One of the key take-aways, from Jeff Jarvis:
I say this is the day that the war ends. This isn’t journalism against bloggers anymore. It never was, really. This is journalists and bloggers together in favor of news.
And Dave also asks, "Why is Jeff Jarvis one of your least favorites?" That question provides an opportunity I'd like to take to expand on the passing reference I dropped into a post last week.

If I'd been thinking more carefully, I would have resisted that cheap crack and said something like "Jeff Jarvis is one of my least favorite press critics – for the same reasons that he is one of my favorite voices discussing the future of news." My concern arises because I think Jeff's pronouncements too often tend to be apocalyptic and consequently disheartening for many newspaper journalists. When he writes that way about our need for fundamental change, he can engender the reaction I have heard Al Gore attribute to attitudes about global warming and climate change: "People tend to go straight from denial to despair." I don't think that helps.

You know me: I'm more inclined to the teach-from-success model: Catch them doing something right. But I do recognize Jeff as an informed and articulate voice for change, and I know he's looking for the same result as most of us: a future in which the essential attributes of real news -- independence, authenticity, verification -- can be preserved and presented, in whatever form audiences demand.

Make up your own mind: for those who haven't been following it (you should), his work is over at BuzzMachine.
– Howard Weaver

Two clear, probably transforming trends

I wanted to bring an article from the latest AJR to the attention of others. It's available here.

It's about four newsrooms (Houston Chronicle, Washington Post, USA Today and a small Maryland daily) and what they're doing with the continuous newsroom. Some of us are already experiencing many of the things they're talking about, but it's an interesting reference point for all of us.

Here's a set-up graph by Carl Sessions Stepp, who wrote the piece:

Most striking are two clear, probably transforming trends: a move toward merging online and print newsrooms, and a surge toward producing news almost around the clock. These changes may well revolutionize newsrooms, and they raise important questions. Who will produce the volumes of copy required? How will quality be monitored without the overlapping layers of editing? What will be stressed in hiring? How will all this affect the enduring and ingrained newsroom culture?

– Dave Zeeck

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Welcome, Jay

David Westphal's observations about Bill Keller and the Never Ending Argument were picked up and republished at Jay Rosen's PressThink this morning. available here in the midst of a continuing good discussion. You may want to slide over and have a look.

And this is likewise an opportune time to remind you that our blog here is indeed open, and while we don't advertise or promote it, folks can and will come by and see what you have written from time to time. (There's a comment in a post below from a "potential Charlotte colleague" that likewise underscores the point about non-staff people reading and using Etaoin Shrdlu).

This is a good thing, but do be aware that the debate isn't simply all in the family.

– Howard Weaver

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

'Craigslist meets CitySearch-like service,
behind a Google-like fa├žade'

Despite her somewhat improbable name, Bambi Francisco has watching and writing about online media for years now and is a leading commentator on the CBS Marketwatch website. In "McClatchy's mini-Google strategy," based on conversations with our own Chris Hendricks, she takes a look at the McClatchy online effort and comes away impressed. Worth a look.
Never ending argument: it that a bad thing?

Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism prof who writes at PressThink, has a piece on the UK Guardian website wondering why the NYT's Bill Keller is so leery of transparency that he doesn't read Romenesko. In "The never ending argument," Rosen offers a fairly balanced discussion of why Keller finds blogospheric debate too self-referential and endlessly contentious to be worthwhile. Unsurprisingly, Rosen disagrees, and approvingly cites one of my least favorite press critics -- Jeff Jarvis -- joining in rebuttal.

Taken all in all, I find Keller's point of view articulate, reasonable and entirely understandable, but I think Rosen and Jarvis have the winning arguments.

I curious what it feels like to you.
Good news for newspapers online

You probably heard about studies released during NAA sessions that found good news for newspapers online: big increases in use of newspaper websites, and encouraging trends about younger people still be interested in news. The Washington Post does a decent job of summarizing both here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

"Karma plays a role, man"

Today's NYT business section has an article about how not-for-profit media -- think craigslist or Chowhound -- are nightmares for businesses tring to make money for the same services. It's well worth a read. (The headline above is the last line in the piece).

I'd like to encourage some further thinking about this, specifically from our perspective on the news and content side of the equation. The reporting and other services we offer are valuable and will continue to be, but we're in danger of being left behind and consequently marginalized if we fail to repond to the growing bottom-up, peer-to-peer movement that animates so many of these alternative services.

There are lots of applications. I'm thinking today specifically about hyperlocal community news. And I'm thinking about ways to have your readers provide it for you (and for one another).

We need to learn how to do this. I'm sure there are many ways to approach it; here's one:

Why doesn't somebody assign a copy editor work as liason with readers who want to write about what matters to them, and then set aside a few columns or half-a-page to publish the results on a regular basis?

I'd tell the editor to worry about libel, taste and basic readability -- but not at all about subject or tone. Letting readers tell us what matters to them -- what they think is worth covering -- is at the heart of this experiment. Letting their voices show through is essential.

You could obviously run as many of these contributions as you wanted online, where space is no premium. You'd want to pick the best of them for publication. I'm certain that publishing some would encourage many more contributions, which would make for a stronger pool from which to select the next round for publication.

Properly framed, labeled and promoted, this could become an important connection with readers, talking about what mattered to them, and doing it in their own voices.

Anybody want to talk about trying this? I'm available.