feb 27

How To Write A Newspaper-Saving Story

So now we can add this to the canon of newspaper-saving stories: App Out Of It, Paper-Boy! At over 6,000 words and starring many of the city's brightest meta-media bylines (John Koblin, Matt Haber, Gillian Reagan and Doree Shafrir), this should -- finally? -- be the think piece that identities the problems and presents the solutions. However, if you read closely, it's more of a "throw everything against the wall" approach than a cohesive web strategy.

Some of you might recognize the rhetoric. It feels like one of those "brainstorming sessions" that marketing/editorial execs love to hold. If you've ever worked for a big media company, you know exactly what I'm talking about: every six months, it's the same dozen people trying to predict the future. (I enter a guilty plea: I've held as many of these as anyone. You know why? Because if you work for a lumbering big media company long enough, the only catharsis is trying to imagine the impossible.)

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's first admit that this story is fighting the good fight. This sort of cultural rhetoric is juicy and readymade for the <blockquote>:

The media of the 21st century is one that is blogged -- not a negative thing, see later in the piece! -- and merged with the users' own experiences and viewpoints synthesized with the original. If postmodernism came to literature in the '80s, it's got to come to journalism now.
That sounds right! But what does this future look like? That's where you start to see the gaudy side of postmodernism, a pastiche of the greatest hits of the past decade. It's basically the Girl Talk version of product development, including all of the following:

+ Personalization. "How about customizable home pages for users? So when they go to NYTimes.com, it will display, say, only international news and science headlines, and eliminate maybe sports- and style-related articles. Users could set preferences to display more new podcasts or video posts and drag and drop any reporters' column into a specific space on their home page."

+ Hyperlocal "A combination of local news and location-based technology has the capacity to be the foundation of this kind of distribution system."

+ Audio Stories. "Maybe Times reporters should file mp3s of their articles, reciting their reporting, along with their print stories, so people riding on the subway, and listening in their cars can participate."

+ Flashy Advertorial. "FlipGloss, a California-based ad start-up that just launched their beta site last week, is one company offering a model for high-end publishers and brands. Their interactive Web advertising translates the visual experience of flipping through a magazine on the computer screen."

+ Mobile. "The idea is this: The news must go mobile."

+ The Live Web. "Everyone in the new world has a status. Newspapers can take a lesson from 'status culture' by integrating it into their sites. What are readers reading right now? How many people have their eyes on one story? Who are they emailing it to? Where are they blogging it? How are their friends using the site?"

+ RSS Readers. "If they want their Twitter feed or del.icio.us links integrated into their home page, so they can see what their friends are reading, let them set that preference as well."

+ Audio Comments. "Users could comment on the article, by calling into the Times and record a comment, which will be automatically transcribed and posted on the website."

+ Subscriptions. "Premium access -- one better than the failed TimesSelect project -- will bring in revenue."

+ Applications. "The Times already has an application that is free for download on various devices including the iPhone and the BlackBerry -- with simple headlines and easy reading. But applications with added data, personalized content and social media would be more valuable."

+ E-Ink. "Perhaps more newspapers should be meeting with mobile device manufacturers and designers to make sure they are catering to consuming news on the go. Can you imagine the next Google/New York Times Android-powered portable reading device?"


Although none of these are bad ideas (some are quite good!), none are particularly novel. It presents this mashup as innovation, even though all of them have been around for a decade. But nostalgia-as-futurism is not really the big problem with this story. The fundamental concern is more prosaic: this story proposes that doing everything is the solution.

This spaghetti-throwing exercise accidentally reveals the actual looming problem inside media companies. Contrary to popular belief (propagated entirely by people who have never worked there), good ideas are not in short supply within big media companies. (You want to meet an aspiring futurist? Stop by the online department of a media company.) By far the biggest problem is focus.

Let's put this simply: there's a management problem inside big media, not an innovation problem.

But in fairness to this story, I am glossing over the prevailing thesis, which does deserve some attention: applications are the future of news. ("If news sites entered these other areas -- became social, hyperlocal, mobile -- perhaps they could retake the center stage and bring paid readers and advertisers to the same place?") That bit of futurism is worth contemplating, but it also deserves some scrutiny. We have some hardware-as-future precedent to discuss. Until recently, the software industry also thought it should build itself into hardware. But Google came along and nuked all of that. If the Mountain View idealists taught us anything about application development (and the word "Google" appears 27 times in this story, so they must, right?), it's that the browser is still the king. iPhone apps are cool, and they undoubtedly should be explored, but will newsy-retrofitted hardware and custom applications ultimately be the savior? TimesReader, anyone?

Despite all of this, I still recommend you trudge through the theorizing in here. The industry quotes are decent, and the thesis holds up most of the time, except when it's subverted by its own gizmo doohickey fascination. There are clearly some good ideas in there, if you can dig them out from the busy thicket.

p.s. This piece also happens to coincide with a lackluster redesign of Observer.com. It's unfair to hold the writers up to the mirror of the tech/biz units of a company, but it also makes the whole thesis a little suspect.


This makes me think of something David Carr said the other night in his conversation with Tina Brown: "News has always been the killer app." It's too simplistic to leave it at that, obviously, but that's something to keep in mind. Ultimately news is what drives this thing forward, otherwise we're just chewing over the same stuff and spitting it back and forth like baby birds.

Reading this actually made me think of old-school Gawker, 12 items per day, a one-stop shop that mixed curation with its own brand of news. Hard to superimpose that model on today (the last day of the Rocky Mountain News) but I think it's worth remembering that all these apps are meant to make the process more efficient for the user, not create more content to slog through.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 3:52 PM on February 27, 2009

Hey, they forgot citizen journalism. And interesting that they rejected micropayments entirely.

posted by Andy Baio at 4:47 PM on February 27, 2009

How about mashing up the NYT with hyperlocal so you get a website with national quality reporting franchised out to include content personalized for your area.

posted by lachicajulia at 11:41 PM on February 27, 2009

It seems to me that all of this high-thought about the "news business" forgets an important part of the story. That the news *business* is not actually about the news. Its about using news (and a bunch of other stuff like cartoons and crossword puzzles) to attract attention from an audience. And once the attention has been earned, the *business* part of the equation is about monetizing the attention. So what will save the news? First off, really good news. No way to attract attention online if all you are doing is writing the same story that everyone else has written (571 stories on the Obama letter to the Kremlin so far this morning according to Google News). Newspapers have to either produce or aggregate the best attention earning content in order to get people to come to them first - otherwise they will just feed other people's attention getting services.

But more importantly, newspapers have to have a thing to do (not a thing to see) when people get there which can be monetized. Craigslist is the new model for classifieds - by the way newspapers, it can still be improved on. Why aren't papers launching craigslist like products? Go on down the list - the electronic versions of the things we once did with papers all exist. Papers must buy, build, or partner to obtain the services which generate revenue in the new marketplace.

Its not about the news - that is just the stuff that gets an audience to show up. It is the experience you give the audience afterwards that matters. And that is what I don't see any newspaper tackling.

posted by Ted Shelton at 9:00 AM on March 3, 2009

Would it be fair to suggest that innovation problems and management problems are the same thing? I'm personally a fan of Bruno Latour's definition of innovation as progressive discovery of new allies, which is not too unlike a management problem: choosing a course without necessarily knowing who will help, and then helping create the conditions where new people become supporters. Quite specifically innovation is not the generation of new ideas, but the matching of new ideas to appropriate supporters, preferably lots of them.

From Aramis:

"Here is the difference between a project that is not very innovative and one that is highly innovative. A project is called innovative if the number of actors that have to be taken into account is not a given from the outset. If that number is known in advance, in contrast, the project can follow quite orderly, hierarchical phases; it can go from office to office, and every office will add the concerns of the actors for which it is responsible. As you proceed along the corridor, the size or degree of reality grows by regular increments. Research projects, on the other hand, do not have such an elegant order: the crowds that were thought to be behind the project disappear without a word; or, conversely, unexpected allies turn up and demand to be taken into account."

posted by Michal Migurski at 2:27 AM on March 4, 2009

I like the comparison, but here's what I mean: an organization can only accomplish so much in a year. It needs to dedicate resources from around an organization to accomplish those things. Management's role in this system is making the hard decisions on which projects are worth dedicating the time.

The Aramis quote tries to recontextualize innovation in a new way, which sounds noble in its own way, but it also seems to apply more to open systems rather than to media companies with finite resources.

posted by Rex at 11:54 AM on March 4, 2009

I'd think the NYTimes and WaPo have different problems than a lot of papers, because they're expected to be a big part of the national news coverage.

In small markets like here (PGH) the national/world section is not written by the newspapers staff. This same principal applies to local television news. They get all their story ideas from the local newspaper, and go visit with a camera and resell the 'news.'

You never hear that local news stations are failing, do you? Usually you get three nearly identical, pretty boring ones in each city. Therefore I would think the main problem is that the local papers in smaller markets are failing because they didn't make the technology leaps with radio and television, and not because they didn't make the leaps properly with the WWWeb.

posted by RjE at 4:49 PM on March 5, 2009

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