Paul Graham on what business can learn from open source

“Those in the print media who dismiss writing online because of its low average quality are missing an important point: no one reads the average blog. In the old world of channels it meant something to talk about average quality because that’s what everyone was getting whether they liked it or not. But now, now, you can read any writer you want. […] Nor is there anything new except for names and places in most ‘news’ about things going wrong. A child gets abducted. There’s a tornado. A ferry sinks. Someone gets bitten by a shark. A small plane crashes. And what do you learn about the world from these stories? Absolutely nothing. They’re outlining data points. What makes them gripping also makes them irrelevant. As in software, when professionals produce such crap, it’s not surprising that amateurs can do better.” — Paul Graham, OSCON 2005 (at about 9 minutes and then about 12 minutes).

Timeless wisdom that’s heartening to come across every so often.

News entrepreneurship session at Digital Journalism Camp

Steve Woodward and Carolynn Duncan of the Portland Ten

Arrived a few minutes late to Digital Journalism Camp, organized by Abraham Hyatt, and these are my notes from the first session about news entrepreneurship in Portland. Steve Woodward and Carolyn Duncan, of the Portland Ten, led the session.

Steve Woodward of Nozzl Media argues that the drop in newspaper revenue is a metrics problem. Newspapers need to work more with metrics and be able to prove their value such that they can reengage their advertisers. The tools for metrics in print are much less than the tools for metrics online.

Discussion about Perez Hilton. Carolyn Duncan asks “who the hell was this guy three years ago?” Chuckles from the audience as someone asks “who the hell is this guy now?” The same guy asking that question follows up with “if you want to be in this business, trust is the word. If you don’t have trust, you’re not going to make a dollar.”

Pete Forsyth on trust and citing sources on Wikipedia: “you want to have a clear, transparent editorial process.” The producer of the content has to adhere to a published set of standards that others can audit.

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Campus directories done right

Not to throw too many tomatoes, but the Daily Emerald made a very “newspaper” mistake today with their website. I’d like start a discussion about “the better way to do it.”

Case in point: The Daily Emerald, I believe as a part of their magazine edition for IntroDUCKtion, created a campus directory. The directory includes dozens upon dozens of email addresses, URLs, and phone numbers for student organizations and sports at the University of Oregon. In the print magazine, which I don’t have access to because I’m in Portland, I’m sure this list of contact information is beautifully presented in an approachable, useful format. Unfortunately, this same list made its way into the website as a long, ugly, flat text file:

Daily Emerald Campus Directory - July 13, 2009

In my humble opinion, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

What if, instead, we approached this directory as the database that it really should be? This web-native directory would have profiles for every student organization much like students can have profiles on Facebook. I’d be able to search for organizations based on the name, the location on campus, people currently involved, the mission of the organization, tags, etc. If I found a organization I was interested in, I’d click through to their profile. The profile would then give me access to all of the contact information I might need in addition to the most recent or popular articles, images, videos, updates from the campus’ microblog, etc. There’d be a small wiki section for the organization or sport where I could read up on its history and know that the information I was getting was true because it had been curated by the beat reporter.

I see at least two advantages to this approach, in addition to making all of the information much more accessible (versus the flat text file). One, you’d only have to build this once. Two, you’d save the reporter or designer a lot of time having to search for the most up to date contact information because they could just pull the information from the database as they’re creating the print product.

Think of role of the student news organization less as a newspaper and more as a platform for impartial, accurate community information to be shared.

Learning from the now

This afternoon held in store for me a fast, engaging conversation with Andrew Jesaitis, a former business manager and colleague at the Whitman Pioneer, who I hear might be getting back into the journalism and media industry. He’s worked for Goldman Sachs since graduating, but will be starting an internship with The Ski Journal in the next couple of months.

I did my best to explain my understanding of how the business is changing, the forces driving the change, and what trends are solidifying for the future. Newspapers and journalism are under the influence of longer-term change because of more ubiquitous ICT, but the current cacophony of crisis is largely due to the biggest recession in half of a century and over-leveraged debt. A lot of the discussion has been centered around the lack of leadership in redefining newspaper business models, but I think Michael Nielsen deserves merit for saying that newspapers might also be failing because their institutional structures are too optimized for an old paradigm. They are too good at what they used to do, and the jump into experimental and uncertain territory is nigh impossible.

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Newsroom as a cafe

Pied Cow, Newsroom as a cafe

David Cohn pegs a newsroom as a cafe where people can hang out and, through food and drink purchase, provide an alternate source of revenue for reporting. Twenty percent of every coffee you bought might go to reporting in your local community, or something like that. For Steve Outing, the newsroom as a cafe is a place for your people to connect so that you can have greater access to your community. Both of these are pieces of a bigger picture that’s been stewing in me for a couple of months; dessert and beer at the Pied Cow on Belmont last night provided a photograph to illustrate my idea.

It’s not just about using a different industry to add to reporting revenue, but rather repositioning the news organization as the information hub for the community. The newsroom as a cafe should be an 18th century salon, or space for the leading discussions of the day to take place, ferment, and spawn action.

Mark this idea as incomplete until I can start working on it. At the moment, I think it would include:

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