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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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.

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Parallels between schools and newspapers

There’s an excellent post on the Union Square Ventures blog about the small Hacking Education conference they had a couple months back. One remark I’d like to highlight:

Fred [Wilson] is suggesting that the education industry may soon face the same challenges that currently confront the music industry and the newspaper industry. Like those industries, education can be peer produced, delivered as bits, and curated by a community. Like the music and newspaper industries, the cost structures embedded in the education industry’s current business models may be very difficult to support in the face of competition from hyper-efficient, web native businesses.

As I’m reading this, a parallel between newspapers and the university system came to mind. Newspapers, as institutions with a business model rooted in a specific project, started uploading their content onto websites in the 1990’s without much concern as to how the Internet would fundamentally change their businesses. They treated their websites as side projects at the very most and minor annoyances most commonly. I think this is very much the case with universities. Progressive schools like MIT have started uploading their courseware, one critical component of their “business model”, to the web for anyone to download free of charge. At the moment, they still have natural monopolies on accreditation and physical space although part of me suspects that those too could change. Considering the newspaper industry isn’t failing gracefully right now, I’d like to think that there are lessons universities can learn from how newspapers dealt with the fundamentally transformative technology known as the Internet.

On a related note, David Wiley argues that OpenCourseWare initiatives are going to have to find a sustainable business model by 2012 or many will fail. To me this says that traditional educational structures that are attempting change will have to show signs of being able to successfully do so in the next few years, or else they will be destined to a downward spiral similar to many newspapers today. This timeframe seems a bit short to me, but I support the assumption.

Conversation from the entire day is up in four parts of video that I’m planning on listening to the entire way through. As someone said in the first hour, the value of the degree is becoming less and less while the cost is becoming more and more. There is a lot of space for this issue to be fixed.

Framework for reinventing classifieds

This is a framework for inventing a better Craigslist.

It is highly unlikely that newspapers will reclaim the monopoly they had on classified advertising pre-internet. They controlled the platform before the internet, and were able to dictate what information used their print pages to gain readers and audience. Some newspapers have lost control of the platform completely and the ones that haven’t will follow suit. Newspapers won’t be able to reclaim the classified advertising space by using the old mental framework for thinking about classifieds, by pretending they might be able to own the platform and charge access to it. Instead, it’s imperative to take the approach of hacking the platform and adding functionality, value, and convenience.

Remember Friendster? I don’t. I never had an account. It was upstaged by MySpace, where I had an account for a few months before it became uncool to do so. MySpace was then upstaged by Facebook. Yes, I’ll concede that MySpace has a large userbase, but its value in the mindspace of the users is rapidly diminishing and there’s a big need for creativity. Fortunately for everyone involved, there’s a low barrier to disruption on the internet.

The real way local news organizations can upset Craigslist and build a better classifieds is simple: create a micro-currency. In addition to providing a more user-friendly interface and the ability to add better meta data, news organizations with a specific geographic community should establish a currency to “monetize” the local marketplace. As Douglas Rushkoff says, the web, and web 2.0 especially, is breaking existing institutions because it allows people to create value on the periphery again. Local news organizations are in a unique, and therefore advantageous, position to provide the platform with which to capture the value of local transactions.

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