Open memo on how to right a sinking ship

The future of journalism is a bright one. It’s time to take the incredible opportunity that the internet presents for improving the entire process of news and capitalize on it. When the internet is the default platform of choice, however, the barrier to invent and reinvent drops to the floor. This is why newspaper companies should’ve applied more resources to innovating ten years ago and will need to work double-time now to remain relevant. Many won’t make it. It strikes me as ironic that, in an age where many people working online complain about “filter failure”, or having access to too much information, we can have a parallel conversation about the supposed “death of journalism.” While many newspaper companies are in various stages of financial viability, I’d like to offer four required mindsets for creating the future of journalism.

Note: this memo is open in the sense than anyone can read it, but also in the sense that you damn well better steal these ideas.

Value experimentation with new business models

As Ryan Sholin says, the business model is the elephant in the room. Let’s take this one step further: the value proposition is the elephant in the room. A basic rule of economics is that if you create something of value, you can monetize it. To paraphrase Douglas Rushkoff, money doesn’t make good journalism, good journalism makes money. Let’s take a look at the past. In the era of the print product, it was acceptable for a reporter to rewrite an article off the wire because their audience generally had access to that content in one place: the paper. In the era of an increasingly ubiquitous internet, these duplication efforts can actually diminish a news brand. Link to it instead of rewriting it. Add value first.

Once you’ve started eliminating redundancies in your product, understand that there is a forward direction for news organization business models and there is a backwards direction. Forwards is experimentation, uncertainty, and hard work. Backwards is trying to impose old business models into a new marketplace. Forwards is creating legitimate value for communities that both the community and the news organization understand. Backwards is attempting to devalue the internet in favor of the physical print product. Forwards is educating your clients of web advertising’s inherent advantages. Backwards is not letting your clients buy an online ad unless they buy a print ad. Forwards is increasing your quantitative data about all different segments of your market, and selling your services against that information. Backwards is trying to justify the value of “one size fits all.”

Redesign the newsroom for the digital age

We’re entering the age of quicker and quicker innovation. To remain competitive, most traditional newspapers will have to completely redesign their newsrooms. The past was hierarchy and bureaucracy whereas the future is flat and distributed. I’ve heard stories where content to be published on the website has to be emailed to one or two Online Editors for placement. In 2009, that’s called a bottleneck. Instead, the editing and publishing process should be a frictionless digital flow. The newsroom should be space in which bottlenecks aren’t tolerated and where efficiencies can happen organically.

Nimble can be incremental. In addition to flattening the architecture of the newsroom, get your staff to expect constant change and have them be on the lookout for new trends and ideas. Encourage them to experiment, and have them report on successes and challenges with a blog dedicated to the changing newsroom. Critically discuss those ideas during regular meetings. Do not be the news organization that forces its employees to talk about innovation off company time. Do be the organization that invites local thought-leaders from different sectors to come in and give presentations during lunch to introduce new ways of thinking. Talks@Google offers a good example of this approach. Within the reporting process, have reporters save links to supporting documents, articles, and content, and publish those links as such when the story goes online. Make information curation on the web a part of their workflow to lower the friction in adopting this approach.

In my opinion, the Cedar Rapids Gazette appears to be an organization that is taking the right approach. I still haven’t had the change to read the entirety of Steve Buttry’s epic Complete Community Connection and am wary of plans to create local portal websites, but I believe they understand the need to be nimble and platform independent.

Change your audiences into communities, your product into a process

Embrace your community, they are core to what you do. Flatten your organization and make it a hub for innovation, creativity, and intelligent conversation.

Pragmatically, this can take a number of different shapes. Online, social networking websites, with Twitter and Facebook being the most popular and relevant at the moment, allow your reporters and editors the opportunity to increase the breadth of conversations they have with their community. Translate that breadth into depth. Even if they don’t have much of a following, reporters can use Twitter as an open, participatory notebook. I’ve personally found that I’m much more attentive to an event if I’m trying to synthesize the major points into 140 character summaries than if I’m just trying to take notes freeform. Twitter can also be a tool for distributed critical thinking; pitch a fact to the crowd to get a sense of the different perspectives on the issue. Most Facebook users add information to their profiles that can make the service a granular, self-managing rolodex. On the news organization’s website, journalists should engage in discussion on their articles and other articles within their beat. Think of your newsroom as a cafe, or an 18th century salon where the important conversations of the day take place. Make components of your news brand, online and off, the central hub around which this discussion takes place.

Remember that the strength of your relationship with your community helps defines your value in any business model.

Hire a few developers and go open source

Your platform for content delivery, let it be the print product, your website, or mobile applications, is the engine for your business. News organizations need to treat all platforms with respect. Moreover, your web presence is as important as if not more than your print product now. It may not be the platform that receives the most readership at the moment, but most newspapers got themselves into the backward positions they’re in now because they were being reactive. They need to be proactive on the web. News organizations should run, maintain, and develop their own websites in house.

There are two ways to do this that go in hand. First, hire a few web developers to regularly develop against your website. Of the things going unmentioned in this “newspapers are dying” conversation, one is that newspapers have consistently shot themselves in the foot with is not applying enough talent, resources, or creativity to the web. Some are just now beginning. The staff required to build, maintain, and develop new features for your website is as important if not more than your production staff. Most newspapers don’t act like this right now, and that’s why they’re newspapers and not legit news organizations. In fact, the local paper in my area, The Oregonian, created an entire second company under a different name for their online product. In addition to the technology and workflow problems, it has completely fragmented their brand. You need to hire developers, and those developers need to be included in the newsroom. This can be done incrementally, too. Hire a developer to set up blogs for your newsroom using the open source blogging platform WordPress, or similar project and expand from there.

Second, go open source. The problem with proprietary vendor platforms is that they get to choose the core characteristics of how your web platform runs and operates. A print analogy: outsourcing your newspaper design to an independent company that doesn’t really understand or care about delivering information to your community. Functionality is a product of design. All the vendor cares about is beating you over the head with their crappy content management system and stealing your money (or advertising revenue in the case of college media). Take control back. Furthermore, open source offers another distinct advantage: you now have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of innovative minds working to improve the software. Proprietary can’t match the explosive innovation offered by open source.

And with that, best of luck. Let’s get hacking.

7 thoughts on “Open memo on how to right a sinking ship

  1. Danny B, maybe I’m bad at reading, but this seems more like a way to improve the process of journalism, but not much on how to actually monitize it. OR at the very least, you are suggesting a “build it and they will come approach.”

    Community and open source stuff are all good, but at the end of the day, someone has to fork over some cash. Thoughts?

  2. Great stuff, Dan. You’ve summed things up well here. It is so true that newspapers need to start moving and thinking forward, journalists need to embrace their communities and engage in daily conversations and the industry’s proprietary software solutions are typically lacking in many, many ways (I know because I support some at The Columbian). Of course, all that said, I think you’d find that many journalists or others who work at newspapers are eager to innovate and embrace change (well, maybe half of us are). The challenge, I think, lies more than anything at the top of most newspaper org charts. The print rabbis don’t want to let go of their scrolls just yet.

  3. Daniel, again, interesting post.

    I feel like a lot of the problem was largely that value was lacking in the mainstream media products before the internet, and that those products were so capital-intensive to produce that the market barrier to entry kept the competition (and the quality) minimal. Just before the internet started becoming a major destination for news, the production of journalistic media was largely consolidated into the hands of a few, proprietary, and heavily capitalized competitors. Basically, if you didn’t like what was on CNN, you had either Fox or MSNBC as alternatives. Now anyone who has access to a computer could potentially be an alternative.

    I’m curious, though, if you suggest increasing online value, would you be open to the idea of charging for content? I’ve seen this done in a few places, where essentially their product is of a journalistic quality in such high demand by its readership that they have managed to survive on charging for content. I still sort of repel from the idea, a little bit, because I’m generally not a fan of constructing paid-membership classes of the informed while the rest of us banter about with sub-grammatical vitriol on YouTube comment boards. It might happen anyway.

    Or, perhaps, the content is of such a quality that it attracts enough viewership to warrant high-paying ad placement? The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Crosscut seem to be attempting this route, but the success so far has been limited.

    Where I see a major challenge is that it’s hard for a journalistic operation to finance itself when a lot of the revenue sources have been “staffed out” to craigslist, eBay, and others, while their more-or-less unintentional syndicates like Facebook, YouTube, and Google are getting the ad traffic. Newspapers and the AP end up only with the costs: that is, paying people for the time and energy it takes to produce and deliver the content. I think improving the quality of content and dedicating resources toward delivery will no doubt improve their chances. And I think flattening the newsroom is an obvious move. But how exactly, when we get right down to it, we can pay the person who has to grill the shit out of the mayor in an interview for the time they spend doing it remains somewhat elusive. (Or should we, even?)

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this, because I admittedly have no answer. The best-case seems like something where the content’s so good you can charge for it, but if that were to become widespread enough to finance journalism, I think the copyright would become unenforceable. Plus it would sorta limit the broad-based participation element I think is vital, and you mention as so in third section. I’m thinking a model more along the lines of community-supported agriculture, Group Health, or community land trusts might be closer to what needs to happen. You might, essentially, pay on the front-end for news you get on the back-end.

    • Ah, that’s a very interesting preposition: monopolies held by mainstream news organizations pre-internet kept the quality of content artificially low. I might just have to agree with that.

      In regards to charging for content, I’m not against all pay walls. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Especially for regional and national news, most stories are commodity. If a news organization like the NY Times or CNN took a unilateral move and put all of their content behind a pay wall, people would just go elsewhere. Philosophically, however, I’m much more of a “freetard” in the sense that I want to create value by giving things away. I’d recommend reading Charles Stross’ Accelerando for a better exploration of this.

      The whole business model thing is huge, but it’s meant to be huge. There isn’t going to be a single answer, but rather a multitude of answers. If you’re creating something of value, then logically you should be able to monetize it.

  4. John says:

    You’re right, Daniel. Fixing the business of newspapers is going to take multiple solutions. I’m skeptical that a pay wall will work at this juncture. Seems like wishful thinking to me that people would pony up even $5 a month for local online news but maybe they would if we provided better news coverage? Of course, that requires solid reporting and digging and that takes time, which newsrooms have less of as the staffs shrink. And that leads me to wonder if anyone has thought that maybe we should be reducing our home delivery areas and reduce staff and expenses there rather than in the newsrooms? Thing is, circulation managers and publishers already are terrified by the recent free fall in print subscriptions so they’re not too eager to tell loyal print readers they’ll have to now hoof it to the mini-mart or grocery store for the paper, or read it online with their dial-up connection that is so prevalent if one lives in the sticks. All that said, as painful as it might be, the ROI in shrinking one’s delivery area may be a smarter solution in some cases.

    Of course, the flip side to that is you’d better keep the right reporters on your staff to do that killer journalism. I’m guessing that most newspapers retain their best reporters during layoffs, but I also know that personalities and salaries can come into play and sometimes a higher-paid and/or outspoken critic in a newsroom can get the axe over a lesser-talented by faithful, follows-orders writer.

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