Tuesday, October 31, 2006

There was an interesting feature this morning on NPR that, I think, gets to some of the challenges newspapers face today, without being a "newspaper" example.

Sometimes it's very difficult to scrutinize yourself. And newspapers sometimes seem more reluctant even than other industries.

So, I thought this example might be a valuable lesson from another industry, might help us see our own challenges from a different perspective.

The music industry is enduring as big an upheaval as our industry, mainly because they had a similar business model for years: They tell the consumer what he likes. They have had essentially a monopoly on the distribution of music. And now they are struggling against the inevitable: digital distribution.

This "technical disruption" has empowered consumer choice, made the common man a music publisher, created "blue ocean" markets for once-dead artists and siphoned millions away from the old guard. Sound familiar?

Anyway, you can listen to the short report: here

I think it's a valuable dialogue starter.
don't ask permission

We talked here not long ago about the death of Tower Records as an object lesson about change and adaptation. It's a powerful example of how to fail by clinging to a misguided notion and refusing to change.

I heard a report on NPR this morning that extends the point even farther.

Mitch Koulouris once worked as a manager for the now-defunct Tower Records retail chain. Five years ago he realized digital music distribution was the wave of the future. Now his company, Digital Music Group, Inc., is buying up old song catalogs and selling them online.

I'll bet that somewhere in your organization there are people who will be the Mitch Koulourises of the newspaper industry. The question we face is whether they'll be doing their pioneering work for us, or as start-ups emerging from our failed enterprises.

We have to provide the space and flexibility and opportunity for people with good ideas to implement them within our companies. Yes, it's hard right now. Publishers and others are often focused on short-term revenues and returns. Capital dollars are scarce.

But competitors (and potential competitors) are plentiful. If somebody at your paper has a good idea for running video obits (welovedthem.com?) you can bet that somebody outside your newspaper does, too. Are we gonna do it, or let them?

Some of this is guerilla warfare. We put the Anchorage Daily News online as a bulletin board system (bbs) called The Front Page in the 1980s – not by asking anybody, but by finding an old Macintosh and teaching ourselves how. I'm sure legal would have complained and IT (if we had any) would have objected.

So what? I'll cover your ass as far as I can, and after that we'll just both get in trouble together.
–Howard Weaver

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Walking through
The Black Gate

Talking through our budget battles last week, one of our editors told me, “as Tolkien remarked about hobbits, in our newsroom we do not need hope as long as despair can be postponed.”

We didn’t get a chance to follow-up right away, but the image stuck in my mind, and I searched for the origin. It comes in The Two Towers. At the end of an arduous journey to Mordor, Frodo, Samwise and Gollum watch as the Black Gate closes, and Tolkien tells us,

“After all, [Sam] never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”

Importantly, the description “cheerful” here refers not to simple-minded Pollyannism, but to the much more powerful Nordic definition of “cheer” – the outlook that drove Viking warriors on to joyful battle despite (sometimes because of) the odds.

For Christians, hope is grounded in belief that good eventually triumphs; not so for the Scandinavian pagans whose myths Tolkien loved. For them hope is foolish, since evil is expected to triumph in the end. (See The Limitations of Long-Term Hope, by Lorin Rosson III).

Courage combines with cheer as the foundation of the Vikings’ highest virtue: carrying on without guaranteed results simply because the struggle is the right thing to do.

As another aging Boomer was known to say, I believe in hope. But I also admire both courage and cheer, and I know that each approach has its moment.

Our hope for better times rests on the conviction that quality news and information always advantage those who have them – and that if we deliver that when and how audiences want, there will be profits to support us.

There are doubters in our industry and on Wall Street right now. The Present Troubles (higher debt, lower revenues, growing anxieties) compound our budget woes. This is the time for courage – and cheer.

We’re building a bridge from one media world to another. The days of my professional youth, when newspapers dominated InfoWorld and profits could be expected to rise each year, are gone forever. Tomorrow’s pattern is not yet established. The way ahead is opaque at best, daunting at worst. We know it will not all be smooth.

But this is precisely the time to carry on forthrightly because it is the right thing to do. Some of this I can change, and some of it I can’t, but I am entirely in charge of how I respond. I want to be proud of that.
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The poetry of media

I can't improve on the way Raleigh's DME Dan Barkin introduced his musings about how technology has changed and empowered media. Here is a sample of what he said in a longer post at the N&O's editor blog:

I just saw Matt Ehlers in the office. He's been at the fair, writing away on his fair blog. Matt's a reporter in our Features department, and he has a gift for seeing the poetry in life. You can read his blog at http://blogs.newsobserver.com/fair2006/. Here's what he wrote yesterday:

The fair at night is dark and bright, tired carnies and hands held tight.
It's sleeping babies and teenage flirts, country music and airbrushed shirts.
It's glow sticks, magic tricks and candied apples blue.
The fair at night is dark and bright, the fools come out, it's true.

He posted it around 10:44 p.m. Wednesday night. I think if Robert Frost took a run at a State Fair poem, this is how it would come out. Except that Frost didn't post photos and video, which is what Matt is doing as well.

Think about the effort Dan's describing: an energetic, 24/7 kind of assignment aimed at readers' real-world experiences, taking advantage of all the tools in the toolbox. There are video clips, still photos, links -- and the continuing, undiminished power of strong narrative text.

You might also enjoy Dan's reflections on his own journey from manual typewriter to the brave new world. Enjoy.
–Howard Weaver

Friday, October 20, 2006

Talking about real life

In Anchorage, we used to ask ourselves this question: If a Martian was coming to visit and had read a month's worth of the Daily News in advance, what would she expect to find?

Too often, our honest answer was, "a lot of really violent people who love to attend meetings."

We all know our journalism connects better and serves audiences better when it addresses their real lives – not the school board as much as the classroom, less about legislative committee hearings and more about unsafe water that never gets tested.

There's a fabulous example running now at the Charlotte Observer, where staffers are helping people tell stories about teen drinking in the own words. Thoughtfully organized and powerfully presented, these stories address life at the level most of us really live it: worried about our families, puzzled with the trends, confused over "kids these days."

They drink at parties on Friday and Saturday nights -- or on weekdays at home after school. They drink to fit in, belong, impress -- or to feel contented with themselves. Drinking among teenagers is down in the Carolinas from two decades ago, but teens are still abusing alcohol at alarming rates. They're starting at an earlier age and are bingeing more often.

A survey of Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students this month revealed that 1 in 5 had consumed five drinks in a row in the previous month. One in 4 had climbed into a car with a driver who had been drinking. For most teens who try alcohol, drinking is a rite of passage among peers, a perilous decision with thankfully few consequences. For others, there is a price. Beginning today, we'll bring you their stories. Each is in the person's words, as told to an Observer reporter. Each offers insight into the reach of alcohol -- and its impact on any family.

Included in the series: The messenger. The daughter. The abstainer. The friend. The survivors. The counselor. The voices of teen drinking.

–Howard Weaver

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Animated opinions

Wow, talk about extending the franchise. Take a look at the way Nick Anderson and the Houston Chronicle are turning traditional editorial cartooning into sophisticated, well-produced animations.

A recent example is available here. And there are archives of other animated work at this link.

The production values here are very high; the animation credits music and graphics assistance at the end. I haven't talked to anybody at the Chronicle about this, but I'd love to know more about how they do it, how much it costs and so on. Anybody have an in there?
–Howard Weaver
Roll your own blogwatch

John Hughes, the Chief Tech Guru (and former letters editor) of the Sacramento Bee opinion pages has developed a marvelous blog aggregation system that pretty much anybody can adapt to their own use. Given these off-the-shelf tools and John's guidelines, you could have a robust site that collects all the most interesting blogs form your area up and online right away. The investment, in time and dollars, is minimal.

There are a number of iterations, but the best intro is found at a site they call ipsoSacto: a taste of our blogosphere. From there, you can link to pages that let you sample a pre-determined listing of Sacramento-area blogs, or tailor a page to your own tastes.

We all need to be in the aggregation game. Simply put, you need to become the central clearinghouse for all the digital, online media in your area -- your own staff, amateurs, competitors. As the established marketplace and name brand, the newspaper site has built-in advantages, but if you don't do it, somebody else will. There's a genuine first-mover advantage here. If you get there first, promote the site online and in paper and offer choices, you should be able to become the dominant source.

That makes using a simple system like John's even more attractive. You don't have to wait for programmers to get around to writing some special software for you, or adapting some complex system you can't manage. This is truly aggregation for the rest of us, and there's little excuse for not trying it now. (You can reach john by clicking on the "Contact" tab at the ipsoSacto site).
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, October 15, 2006

View from the Googleplex

Google's CEO had words of reassurance for "content companies" during this recent interview with the Financial Times, but they were tempered with a warning for the slow and reluctant.

Here's Eric Schmidt sounding like a cooperative and cozy partner:

All of the media companies are dealing with dramatic changes in their business. All of them are looking for a partner. All of them are looking for a way to make money. One of the great news, from our perspective, is people are using this content on the internet. The bad news is it doesn’t make as much money for the businesses. And ultimately the businesses need to make money in order to produce the new content. So what we’re trying to do with all of these partners is to say, ‘if you work with us we can combine our advertising platform and your content with a much larger audience.’ So far people like that message, they are now trying to figure out what to do about it – should they, should they not, under what terms, and those sort of things.

And then here's a taste of the warning he had about the kind of change ahead, and about winners and losers:

You know, every technology dislocation has winners and losers. And the winners are the companies that can adopt these technologies more quickly and the losers are the ones that are stuck, unable to make the transition, unable to take advantage of new technologies. It is clear that the internet and the web and what is generally known as a marketing term of web 2.0 are the defining new technologies. I think that race is underfoot. It’s too early to say who the losers will be. Clearly the winners will include companies like Google and all the other companies that have made their bets on web 2.0.

I think partnerships will be key, and I think we need to get started. Some may turn out to be fundamental building blocks of the 21st century news company. Others will be useful for a while and then fade as conditions change, or as our own capacities grow. Still others will, of course, turn out to be mistakes.

Ready, fire, aim.

We're engaged in that at corporate; I hope many of you are doing the same thing at home.
–Howard Weaver

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Visit scenic atomictown

Chances are that few of you will ever visit Kennewick, Pasco or Richland, the three communities that make up Tri-Cities, WA. But all of you should visit atomictown.com, the entertainment website of the Tri-City Herald.

The entire online operation at the Herald is a continuing workshop in oportunistic innovation. When they get an idea at the Herald, they just do it. The site was a leader in getting high school football video online, runs a killer interactive garage sale workshop, and generally takes full advantage of available, open source tools to make things happen. The small staff there maintains a robust main website, special sites for Kennewick Man and the Hanford nuclear facility, news in Spanish and much more.

My current favorite is atomictown.com, and especially the way staff writer Bethany Lee translates her work into high-quality video. For example, take a look at Bethzilla, Music for Firday the 13th.

How do they do it? Andy Perdue knows: APerdue (at) tri-cityherald.com
–Howard Weaver

Friday, October 13, 2006

Reinvention at the LA Times

You'll no doubt see the NYT story describing how the Los Angeles Times has assigned editors and investigative reporters to examine ways to reinvigorate their work and find new connections with readers. I recommend it.

Among my favorite nuggets:

'We shouldn’t be waiting for corporate headquarters or a think tank or a consultant to come up with ideas to secure our future,' said Marc Duvoisin, an assistant managing editor who will direct the investigation ...

'We realized we had to act fast or we wouldn’t have anything to act for,' said Vernon Loeb, the paper’s California investigations editor, who helped originate the idea.

–Howard Weaver

Monday, October 09, 2006

Young people and news

Here's a short but illuminating report about an Online News Assocation panel of young people talking about how and where they get news. There's nothing new here, but it's crisp and definitive:

If you want to feel old, ask some young people about how they consume news. An ONA Saturday morning panel featured four “digital natives” ranging from 12 to 20 years old who’ve grown up always living in a technological world. Dale Steinke reports below…

Think RSS feeds, off-beat news links shared among friends via IM, social-networking sites, e-mail alerts and short-form stories. No TV in real-time.
It also makes the point that young people don't seem interested in government and political news. Duh. This is the one finding that doesn't scare me; neither was I when I was 12-20 years old ...
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tower tumbles

When I want to tell people where I live in Sacramento, I use the Tower Theater as a landmark. It’s an old art deco art cinema and restaurant built at the site of the 1940s drugstore that sold 45-rmp records and launched the business that became Tower Records.

Tower was a treasured Sacramento institution, a local business that went global, made money, got cool. As recently as my arrival 11 years ago, its West Sacramento headquarters was an important hub in the worldwide pop music pantheon, a place where aging hippies with pony tails would cut off the neckties of visitors who didn’t know the company dress code.

And now, Tower is no more.

Owners made a lot of excuses for the declining business over the years. My favorite was the contention that there just wasn’t as much good music to sell nowadays. Much of the analysis now talks about how the company was killed by the internet.

But that’s not quite right, of course. What killed Tower was its inability or unwillingness to adapt to the internet.

The Sac Bee has the story here, including this observation:

"If you look at Tower Records over the last 30 years, this is a company that never really changed," said George Whalin, a national retail consultant who grew up near the Tower store on Broadway in Sacramento. "Look at Russ' history -- he's a store guy."
– Howard Weaver
Who do you have to decapitate
to get on Page 1 around here?

Don't miss Michael Kinsley's take on the Tribune Company's situation, op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Smart ... and fun.
News crush

Barb and I have a weekend house nestled amongst vineyards in
California's Shenendoah Valley, about 60 miles east of Sacramento. I no longer drink, but Barb tells me the neighbors make fabulous wine from the Zinfandel and Syrah grapes they grow nearby.

Right now, they're involved in "the crush," a frantic time of year when the grapes have reached optimum ripeness and the vintners are working around the clock to turn them into wine. A year's work and millions of dollars will hang on how the magic of chemistry and taste evolves over the next few weeks.

Our neighbor Elisheva describes the crush simply as "war," and we have all learned not to interfere or expect any significant interaction until it's over. For instance, we really need to have a road committee meeting to get started with some repairs before the rainy season – but there is no point at all in raising those issues now.

What's that have to do with the news business? Well, it seems like an apt analogy for the management challenge you're all facing. Welcome to the news crush; clearly, this is war.

You’re all in the midst of building budgets you know will be hard to live with. You’re dealing with publishers and ad directors focused intently on revenue growth and with circulation departments nervously watching the losses mount. They all want you to satisfy yesterday’s readers in tomorrow’s paper.

And you must, of course, or we won’t make it. But you also have to change how we deal with audiences going forward:

  • Your front page needs to be more compelling, starting tomorrow. You have to encourage new voices, tune the coverage to include new reader preferences, compete more effectively with alternative sources of information and new distractions.
  • You have to move swiftly to fill the new channels we know audiences are moving into: 24/7 updates and alerts; video; cell phones and other mobile platforms.
  • You have to give up the idea that we can serve as ultimate gatekeepers, while not abandoning the sense of standards and professionalism that make us unique and valuable.

Last week an unexpected rain fell on many of the vineyards here. Wet grapes, left unpicked, quickly develop mildew, so other plans went out the window and important tasks were left undone while crews were mobilized to harvest. They might not be able to save all the grapes, so they started with the most valuable. They prioritized quickly and worked furiously.

I watched all this from the sidelines, of course, my only contribution being to stay out of their way.

And our neighbors – smart, politically active people and avid news consumers – are on the sidelines for our fight. We have to figure it out for ourselves.
–Howard Weaver

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Teaching print journalists the digital way

Speaking of shameless promotion, I would like to tell you about a project I’ve recently launched.

I’m writing a book called “Journalism 2.0: How to survive and thrive in the digital age.” J-Lab, the institute for innovation at the University of Maryland, is funding the project. My goal is to produce a how-to manual targeting the many thousands of journalists working today who still have not fundamentally changed the way they approach their craft to adjust to the new world we all live and work in.

So, no, you are not the target audience for this book. What I’m hoping is that you will contribute to the project. Taking a page from Chris “The Long Tail” Anderson’s playbook, I have started a blog as a way to test ideas and invite others smarter than me to weigh in and offer their best insights based on their experience. I hope that it will collect the best practices of some of the dedicated new media professionals who are leading the digital revolution, including you, since I know I’m not the only one trying to spread the faith.

Please visit the blog when you have a few minutes or send me an email if you have thoughts or suggestions. For starters, I'd love to get a copy of the Blog Backgrounder that Will mentioned that's in use at the Strib. Naturally I will be giving appropriate credit to all the information that ends up in the book.

And thanks in advance for your participation.


Mark Briggs

A toe in the water of cell phone distribution

I'm back for more shameless promotion. The Twins are in the playoffs, lost yesterday and are losing in game two in the top of the 9th as I write this. So, time is of the essence.

Yesterday we rolled out live cell phone game updates. This is just one example of important alternate ways of delivering what we do best. We hope it will make us more relevant and more fun. After less than a day we have about 500 folks signed up and expect that number to grow rapidly as the word gets out.

We'll also be doing breaking news updates and have already begun a cell phone text service to deliver relevant jobs notices to job seekers.You can go to StarTribune.com and you'll find a link from our Twins coverage to sign up. Or you can go directly to the log in page to try it for yourself.

All you have to do is type in your cell phone number, choose your "update" and click "register." You'll quickly receive a text message on your cell phone with a code to confirm your choice.

Type that code into the box on the registration page and, viola, you'll start receiving live game updates. Now, no matter what boring meeting you're trapped in, you'll be on top of the game action!

I'd be very interested in your feedback. Once again, we recognize that we have much to learn.