Built from scratch

If you wanted to build a completely digital student news organization from scratch, how would you do it?

Which beats would you cover right off the bat? Would you cover club sports and campus sustainability, or the common news the student newspaper already covers?

What form would your content take? Would you focus on text, images, audio, or video? For video, would you put together technically high quality multimedia pieces, or stream via Qik? How can you balance quality and quantity?

How quickly would you try to scale? What benchmarks do you have for your organization at one month, three months, and six months? What would you do to advertise and get the community involved?

What would the business side look like? Where would your funding come from? Would you sell advertising and/or have premium features? How much would you pay your staff?

How would your platform compliment the stories you’re trying to tell? Would you start off simple with WordPress, or launch with something Django-based? What type of features would you want in your site to increase engagement with your product? Would you offer RSS, email newsletters, or content through social media?

Most importantly, what type of people do you look for to help you build your vision?

Why I’m leaving

As of yesterday evening, I am no longer an employee of the Oregon Daily Emerald.

My decision comes after two months of frustration trying to get the Daily Emerald off of College Publisher. College Publisher, for those who are unaware, is a proprietary, locked, and nearly obsolete content management system (CMS). In my opinion, the first step student newspapers must take to survive in this “digital era” is to invest significantly in adopting an open source platform for their web presence. Open source allows a student newspaper to truly evolve into a student news organization. It offers the ability for you to have the final say in how, where, and why you publish your content. In proprietary systems, you leave this technological innovation up to the company to whom you’ve contracted out the work.

A metaphor for the people who have grown up with print: open source means your newspaper design and layout can be just whatever the heck you want them to be. Proprietary code means that you only have a certain number of colors, fonts, and article lengths to work with. Your sections always stay in the same location, and you can only adjust the placement of the stories to the smallest degree. All of those innovative front page newspaper designs from last Wednesday? Those wouldn’t be possible with proprietary code.

At the Daily Emerald, however, I was told we must first hire a publisher before we can consider any changes to our CMS. On top of that, we have a contract with College Publisher for at least the next six months (although we receive very little money from the deal so I’m not exactly sure what the Daily Emerald would lose by breaking the contract). Furthermore, the board meetings are closed. This means that I, the guy with Google Doc upon Google Doc of ideas, have to be invited to participate in the decision making process. To me, this sounds completely illogical. Instead, I have to pester the already overworked EIC with the things I’d like to do, and then have those suggestions go up the “chain of command.” It’s not a functional system for the real change which needs to happen.

Although I completely understand how busy the Daily Emerald newsroom is in producing a daily paper, it is busy work distracting the organization from what really needs to be built: a strategic vision for what student news is in the coming years. If I were in charge, I’d call an emergency board weekend retreat that anyone with expertise would be invited to. Student newspapers, just like the traditional media giants, need to completely rethink themselves because, by not innovating on the web, they’re is making themselves completely vulnerable to one potentially huge problem:

Competition from the people who get it.

Three threats for student newspapers

Sometimes it’s difficult being the web guy at a student newspaper. Although you’re absolutely certain “online” is going to play a significant role in the future of your organization, you’re not able to articulate the urgency of your position well enough to make the decision making wheels turn. It’s frustrating, to say the least. From the thinking and idea stealing I’ve done in the past week, I think there are at least three threats facing student newspapers who don’t reinvent themselves as multi-medium digital news organizations:

Threat one: Monetary. Advertising revenue dries up on the print side, print costs go up, and your online product isn’t compelling enough to generate the same type of revenue. That, or your online product is College Publisher and you can’t even boost the advertising revenue if you wanted to. One counter argument is that student newspapers could just go to student government to up their funding, a “bailout” of sorts, but I don’t think that could ever be a long term solution.

Threat two: Staff disappearance. Students no longer want to work at their student newspaper because their industry of choice has a bleak future. Jessica DaSilva is already facing this challenge at the Independent Florida Alligator and, as I commented, this could be the greatest short term threat, especially if your paper isn’t perceived as all that digitally progressive.

Threat three: Dearth of talent. Publishing and monetizing news online is quite different than print, and requires a skill set that potentially isn’t represented by current staff. The further a newspaper gets behind, the more it will have to invest when it does decide to make the gigantic leap in the future. This financing to buy talent might have to come out of its investments or from a significant fundraising drive.

At the moment, this is threat identification and analysis. I don’t have exact solutions to any of these issues right now. My hope, though, is that by studying and mapping out the specifics of each threat we can develop strategic plans to make the transition and keep campus journalism alive.

Internet as a disruptive force

For tomorrow night’s Fertile Ambition call, my argument is that the internet is an inherently disruptive force for institutions and industries whose business models don’t take advantage of a flattening world. Pragmatically speaking, I’ve identified the music, movie, and news industries as ones which have already been at the receiving end of this characteristic. In the near future, I see at least the political and educational systems facing serious change.

One effect of the disruption I’ve identified, but have no support for at the moment, is that the institution has a reduced capacity to fulfill its tasks through the duration of the evolution. Moreover, if there are no support mechanisms in place, then society’s capacity to function in the affected arena is seriously hindered. Alternative methods of education are abundant on the internet, but I can’t think of any backups we have for the current political process.

There are at least several questions I still have. How valid is this premise (and is it concrete enough)? What other institutions or industries are vulnerable? How do institutions take preemptive action to address the changes they will eventually have to deal with? Most importantly, what are the discrete components of each stage of institutional evolution?

Student news as process

Will Sullivan asks, “What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?”

Why, adopt the technologies that are changing the media organization, of course.

Disclaimer: I’m no formal contributor to this October’s Carnival of Journalism but, y’arr matey, I be boarding the ship anyway. 

Online publishing mediums are in flux and will continue to be as time progresses. This is a truth. At the moment, you’ve got RSS, a website, Twitter, blogs, etc. to deal with, all of which have distinct cultural assumptions as to content form. Were all of these distribution mechanisms around five years ago? For the most part, no. What mediums will be added in the next five? It’ll be interesting to see.

There won’t be a stable “e-newspaper” product which parallels its predecessor, the print product. To my understanding, this is largely due to inherent qualities of the internet as a technology. It’s more of a paradigm shift than anything else. Journalism now has to contend with ever evolving distribution mediums. Websites, the mobile web, SMS, and the Kindle are all, ironically, examples of nearly the same thing, but not the same thing. There are different cultural expectations for content delivery depending on the type of device.

In any regard, while going through Jeff Jarvis’s “New business models for news” slides, a few small to medium-size content/distribution projects relevant to the student media arena came to me. First, student news organizations should be compiling community blog round-ups. Synthesize the local discussions. There are surely at least a few students blogging on campus about various popular topics of the day. The recent political debates come to mind at the moment. News stories without links are static, but think of what would happen if you started quoting student blogs and encouraging participation. Bam, community. Furthermore, this organizing power increases if you do two things: have an email address where your audience can send in leads or links, and read regularly as many campus blogs as you can. 

Second, Twitter-source coverage of hot topics, especially politics. Obviously it shouldn’t be all of your converge, especially because Twitter only covers a certain demographic, but Twitter is certainly an interesting source of content. In Eugene, the Weekly Enema has almost scooped the Daily Emerald on this one.

Lastly, build up your email newsletter product. Include a big image or two at the top, summaries of the leading stories, and a list of the most popular blog posts. Craft the newsletter just like you craft the paper, and get people to sign up for it. For some odd reason, I’ve heard more about this recently than our website (might it be that people haven’t discovered the wonders of RSS?). Tying your email edition to a CRM product and use the wealth of click data to create tailored, personalized emails.

The business model, of course, is the elephant in the room. There are plenty of innovative minds working on this issue, however, and, with money to be made, I’m not too worried. Monetize as you evolve in tune with the changing formats.

Blog Action Day 08: The cost of water

In Mumbai, India, the poorest of the poor pay disproportionately more for their water.

Delivery

Men and boys from the non-institutionalized slums of Mumbai (the ones on the periphery of the city without public taps) wake at 4 AM every morning to buy water from those who do have formal connections.

Super quality

The cost of water is two rupees per 35 L jerry can when the lines start at 5 AM, but jumps up to around six rupees per can when the water from the city stops flowing. Most families need between eight and ten cans per day.

Filling up

In short, those who have to buy their water each morning can spend up to 900 rupees per month. The deed holders (i.e. those who own land and have a house) have pipes from the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) at a cost of only 125 rupees per month.

Breakfast

Unfortunately, this appalling situation is in equilibrium, as house owners can make upwards of 3,000 rupees per day selling water to those who have to spend a significant amount of their income to get the bare minimum.

To make matters worse, the BMC would like to privatize water in the future, arguing they “lose too much money in the business.”

Here, in the slums next to Govandi and Mankhuted, “Do you get the water?” is asked each morning in place of “Hello” or “How are you?”

Images and text released under Creative Commons for Blog Action Day 08: Poverty

The Daily Emerald has its blogs back

The Daily Emerald is working hard on moving its web presence forward. Largely, it’s me setting up the technology and implementing design, but the rest of the newsroom understands imperative to innovate quickly and start transitioning to a better digital product. The result of about five hours hacking a WordPress template yesterday is ODE Blogs, an aggregator for the current four Daily Emerald blogs launched at the moment: Press Pass from the sports desk, Pizazz from Pulse, Our Words from Opinion, and Up Close from the photo team.

As always, open source technology is at the heart of these cool updates. We’re using separate instances of WordPress for each blog, which makes user administration a lot easier and the ability to sandbox the layouts. The aggregator serving as the blog landing page is a semi-custom WordPress theme with a slightly hacked SimplePie plugin that allows us to merge the RSS feeds and order them by publish date (hat tip to Jenn Vargas for that lead).

This design isn’t stay static, though. What you see now will change in the coming weeks as we work to unify the user experience of the paper, the WordPress blogs, and (keep your fingers crossed) the main College Publisher 4 site. Our hope is to have visual cues across all products which make navigation common, intuitive, and simple.

Up Close, the ODE Photo blog

I’m proud to announce the Oregon Daily Emerald now has one more online property: Up Close, the Photo blog. To the tune of Boston.com’s The Big Picture and the Seattle Times’ Best Seat in the House, we’ll be expanding upon the number of images traditionally available in print and on our website by publishing the good ones that don’t make the cut (including the foul which granted Oregon a game-winning penalty kick last week).

Personally, I think this makes a lot of sense. Daily Emerald photographers, including myself, shoot hundreds of images each week. Many of the good ones don’t make it to print, as we obviously have limited space to run content. Having a team photo blog, however, will be an excellent forum for all of us to showcase our work, as well as highlight some of the challenges we face making excellent images. As a kicker, the images will be a full, gorgeous 900 pixels wide.

Furthermore, this is the first of many upgrades I hope we’ll be making this fall. Everyone in the newsroom is already in love with Google Apps, and I hope the other digital upgrades I’ve got in mind are just as well received (although I got the classic, “Twitter is so stupid,” comment a few days back).