Daily Emerald on strike, and the evolution of the newspaper

Around 8:30 this morning, Kai Davis (or @ninjakai) twittered something about the Oregon Daily Emerald being on strike. The initial image in my mind was one of people picketing in the street, and I couldn’t honestly guess as to what they would be striking about.

Then I read the editorial.

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Wikis to (re)build the news

It seems to be all of the rage these days (the first one I came across was created by Andrew Dunn).

Alexis Madrigal and Sarah Rich have started a wiki to design the next San Francisco Post-Chronicle, after hearing news that the Hearst Company could be shutting down the newspaper within weeks. With a potentially serious gap opening in Bay Area news production, they’ve begun brainstorming ways in which to bring the newspaper up to speed with the 21st century. The planning is broken into three arenas, two of which I have time to cover before my own flight to SF:

Distribution Model

Let’s go digital. It’s all about the internet, especially in early adopter central (i.e. San Francisco). Reporting should be web first, and the print edition could be cut to once a week. Publish a news magazine-style edition on Fridays and make it a compilation of the best content from all around town. I’d bet there’s a number of blogs that would like to see print readers for a cut of the revenue.

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What is journalism?

Dharmishta Rood started a thread on Seesmic for a class at Harvard on the 9th of March asking, “What is the future of news?” I don’t feel as though my two minute response conveys everything I’d like it to, and want to clarify a few of the ideas.

The future of news isn’t newspapers. The newspaper is an inefficient, uneconomic, and environmentally-troubling method of moving data. In my opinion, Steve Rhodes laid out an epic laundry list of everything that’s broken in the newspaper industry a few days ago. There isn’t any need to repeat that, thanks to the internet. The key takeaway is that, instead of trying to figure out how to financially support newspaper-style journalism on the web, we should be active in conversation about what journalism is, and how the internet will enable us to do it better.

To me, journalism is the act of providing impartial, accurate information to empower a community to make decisions. I had “independent” in the definition earlier, but I don’t believe that independence is entirely necessary if you partake in the art of full disclosure. The process of journalism need not be limited to newspapers, and the format need not be tied to an article measured in column inches. As Suzanne Yada rightfully noted just over a month ago, “Twitter isn’t journalism, just like television isn’t journalism, but you can find journalism ON Twitter and ON television.” Our information needs have changed from a hundred years ago, and the internet lends news organizations greater ability to fulfill this responsibility.

Two premises for the near future (that you’re welcome to dispute):

  • Newspaper journalism operated in the era of information scarcity, where “what is news” was determined by the amount of space available in the delivery mechanism. Online journalism operates in the era of information as a commodity. This means that “what is news” is defined by the quality of information.
  • We’re also now in an indefinite era of format fragmentation, meaning that journalism can be implemented in a myriad of different ways. This is another paradigm shift from the newspaper age, but not for the worse: the internet allows us to do more with information. The internet is ultimately a more powerful platform for journalism because users can be exposed to information automatically based on context and the depth of information they need.

The “Future of News” is going to be a competition to see who can create the most innovative and engaging ways to deliver information which empowers communities to make decisions.

Discussion topics for NewsInnovation Portland

In no particular order, these are the things I’m looking forward to discussing at BarCamp NewsInnovation Portland tomorrow:

What is journalism? Every conversation starts with a foundation, or core premises, and I don’t believe we’ve gotten to that point yet in this shindig about newspapers dying. Considering it’s a fundamental paradigm shift we’re going though, I think it’s going to be important to start at square one and build up.

The model for the ideal digital news organization. There’s a lot of ideas bouncing around as to how newsrooms should change, what the business models are, and what their websites should look like. It would be really sweet to come up with a master list of all of these ideas (and then have someone experiment with them…)

Transparency for building trust. The first group to take the concept of an “open source organization” and apply it to journalism wins five dollars. I’d enjoy covering strategies and techniques (a la the CoPress Team Blog) for completely opening a news organization.

If you can’t make it, we’ll be livestreaming and liveblogging the whole day long. It will be epic.

Save the old or start new?

For the discussion about journalism education with the #collegejourn folks, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the fire.

First, the assumption is incorrect. There’s no way professors are going to be able to “catch up,” but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just another characteristic of the indicative paradigm shift that’s happening right now. We’ve got to move from a “one-to-many” style of top-down education to a “many-to-many” style of networked education. What we’re doing right now, having a lateral conversation that is independent of geography, is just one example of this transition happening organically. If anything, it’s going to be us (i.e. the students) getting professors caught up. In doing so, however, the question will be raised of what exactly the role of journalism professors is. I don’t necessarily have an answer.

Journalism schools, furthermore, need to become catalysts for innovation. “Innovation” is becoming a buzzword these days, but there has been less discussion on what is needed to inspire it. I’m of the opinion, though, that schools are excellent ground for experimentation. Students should be afforded the opportunity and encouraged to test new things out because the school can be an environment where it doesn’t hurt to fail, pick up the pieces, and try again.

It’s critical to drop multiple choice testing. Standardized tests and rote memorization are one of the worst excuses for learning, and do even less in an era of rapid technological transformation. One of my classes this fall was J204 Visual Communications. In my opinion, 90% of the tests we took were based on how well you could memorize the book. I did quite well but honestly couldn’t tell you what I learned four months later. Grading is subjective, and should instead be based on an interpretation of merit.

Furthermore, there need to be multiple tracks of learning. Classes now are held for the lowest common denominator, but the gradient of skill aptitude is increasing. There needs to be better rapid certification for “self-learners,” and the class needs to be better structured such that those who learn at a quicker pace are incentivized to teach their fellow students.

What if class was an unconference? What if, at the beginning of every semester, the students came together and collaborated on their syllabus for the next semester? Instead of the professor teaching what he or she thinks the students should learn, the educational process needs to be driven by what students want to learn and, more importantly, by the questions they want to answer. Education through creation instead of education through systemization.

I challenge any school to be this radical. It might even motivate me to re-enroll.

More disruption, courtesy the Internet

Via Joey Baker (and an earlier link I didn’t save), Professor Douglas Rushkoff on the “transformative nature of the internet“:

I’m not entirely sure how to collect my thoughts on this, but the presentation struck me as profound. Most importantly, it’s heartening to know that there are other crazies out there working their minds through the same observations of a fundamental change taking place. There’s tremendous room for intellectual growth, largely because it’s such uncharted territory. A couple memorable quotes from the presentation:

Talking about crises in the banking sector, Rushkoff says, “decentralizing technologies fundamentally undermine the corporate-capital structure.” The traditional corporate-capital structure, to my understanding, mandates that the wealth of a corporation is dependent on the scarcity of its product.

He goes on to explain that “‘digital economy’ is in itself an oxymoron […] Things digital are best understood as an ecology, not as an economy. Economies are based in […] rational actors, maximizing their value, through the acquisition and distribution of scarce resources, whereas on the internet what we have are irrational people having fun engaging in sharing what feels, at least to them, like limitless resources.” In short, the foundation of the economy is taking a 180, thanks to the internet.

The takeaway, as I realized in a conversation over lunch, is that it’s an amazing time to be alive because, depending on which side of the bed you work up on, there is so much potential for high impact creativity and innovation.

Open source reporting on projects

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to travel again with Green Empowerment and check out the water project in progress in the community of Suro Antivo. Through a combination of municipal and foundation funds, the small collection of houses is finally going to receive safe and reliable water access to their households. To date, most families have to get their water from unimproved sources. There are two tanks being built, and one being refurbished, which will supply water to each house through a gravity-fed system:

Under Construction

Old and new



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Parallels between journalism and education

I’ve got an email thread going with John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, and it’s conversations like these that make me wish there was a better tool for having transparent, but directed conversations. The discussion topic is education, specifically the current university system, and I think there’s a pretty interesting parallel to the journalism industry.

John asks, “Is there still room for a professor to teach wisdom?”, to which I reply (emphasis added):

I think professors can teach wisdom, but so can students. The current model, to take a journalism analogy, is broadcast, whereas the technology is quickly allowing many to many communication (or education). There’s still room for professional news organizations (or traditional universities), but they are now facing the crunch to evolve in order to maintain their relevance. The one thing that the universities still hold as a competitive, monopolistic advantage is certification, in my opinion. A substantial alternative, a system for rapidly certifying you in certain areas if you already hold the knowledge or can pick it up at a greater rate, will be a huge disruptor.

I don’t think the “current college system” will remain relevant. Instead of thinking about textbooks and lectures, which in some arenas are becoming obsolete faster than they can be printed (i.e. journalism, where the “Web” was discussed in only one part of one chapter of my J201 textbook), I think universities need to be thinking a lot further forward.

This [many to many communications technology] presents a huge flaw in the “top-down” model, too. For universities to function as it stands, the professors must “learn” the material before the students do, hold a monopoly on that information, and then present that information. The problem is that the information they need to teach will be changing at an increasingly greater rate. That’s why the evolutionary, “network-based” model is appropriate.

I’d like to continue that evolutionary learning, where knowledge grows from the ground up, is likely the only way that universities (or any other education system) can “keep up with the times” and not teach 5 year old material. The real issue is that we’re amidst a fundamental paradigm shift on top of accelerating change, and that most institutions that have dealt information in the past aren’t adequately forward-thinking to survive the transition.

Idea for News Mixer: Unique URLs for anything

From an email conversation earlier today, I think it would be sweet if News Mixer, a Knight-funded open source commenting project built on Django, had the ability to generate a unique, static URL for any bit of content in the content management system. I really like the things that News Mixer is doing to take commenting forward because, all too often with the “normal” types of threads, the diamonds are lost in the rough (especially when the comments number in the hundreds and thousands). News Mixer is experimenting with the radical changes necessary for comments to be useful again. Being able to generate a unique URL to a paragraph or sentence would allow the community to respond on their own blogs in direct response (and make trackbacks more granular).

On another note, I believe we interviewed Rich Gordon for tomorrow’s edition of This Week in CoPress. I was out in the field doing research, but am definitely looking forward to hearing about his future plans for the project.

Free strategic advice for the @dailyemerald

Last night, I realized we’ve started bitching about the Daily Emerald in the peanut gallery without offering any positive advice for change. I’d like to offer my thoughts on how to turn the struggling newspaper into a successful digital news enterprise.

Step one: hold a transparent weekend (or weeklong) jam session to develop a strategic plan. Invite as many intelligent stakeholders as you can to a retreat, and put together a website for that retreat with the agenda, list of everyone involved, and goals. It might also be useful to have a open community forum in the week preceding to hear strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of the audience, or launch a website where the community and submit and vote on ideas for the news organization. When retreat happens, however, make it open and participatory. Make sure everyone at the retreat is documenting the discussion on Twitter, and livestream as much of the discussion as you can. Have a designated “community manager” for the retreat who looks for suggestions from watchers and brings those to the meeting. Tap the intelligence of the digital crowd, especially because you’ll be able to bring even more smart brains from afar.

Step two: campaign over summer 2009 amongst the Daily Emerald alums to raise the funds necessary to implement the strategic plan. Shop the plan out to them to get their feedback and insights, and use CRM (or customer relationship management) software to track these interactions. When I left, they were using a FileMaker database system and analog mail. I would ditch this system immediately, and my first investment would be software like Salesforce.com (which a news organization could also use to sell advertising more effectively). Using the new CRM, it would be wise to fundraise amongst the alums who want to see their old newspaper experiment with this platform called the internet. Including them in the process, by sending them the strategic plan and a link to the website with an archive of all the video, will make them more invested in the process (if they like what you’re doing at least).

Step three: implement the strategic plan starting in Fall 2009. If I were the publisher of the Daily Emerald, these three are of many things I would attempt to drastically right the direction of the news organization:

  • Quit the College Publisher habit. Being on a locked, proprietary content management system is probably the worst foundation you could have for a digital news organization. Focus heavily on recruiting a few developers out of the computer science program, and build a basic website on Django that you can grow from. If you ask nicely, the Daily Gazette at Swarthmore or Daily UW might be willing to lend enough code to get you started.
  • Move to once a week in print. I know that this would be very, very difficult, especially because the bulk of revenue comes from the print product, but it needs to happen nevertheless. Necessity is the mother of invention. Do it, and publish daily online.
  • Empower your community. Break down the ivory tower, and hold workshops to teach interested community members how to report on the issues they’re passionate about. I am quite certain that club sports at the University of Oregon don’t get the coverage they deserves, and there are probably at least several people who could tweet at games and submit high quality images for a photo gallery.

Right now at the Daily Emerald, though, they’re going about it the API emergency meeting way, and this is just one of the many reasons I think startups make more sense in this climate. I mean, look at all of the effort it’s going to take to turn this ship around, let alone reinvent it.

There’s also been discussion that student news will be largely unaffected by the tornado ripping through regional newspapers right now. Even if that is the case, I would like to propose an analogy: if you’re driving towards the cliff of irrelevance, your direction is what is most important. It doesn’t matter that your car’s engine hasn’t seized up yet.