Out of the ashes of printed newspapers will come the rebirth of journalism

In a post on Medium, professor Clay Shirky says it is last call for printed newspapers.  

“My friend +Jay Rosen  writes about the media’s “production of innocence” — when covering a contentious issue, they must signal to the readers “We have no idea who’s right.” Among the small pool of journalists reporting on their own industry, there is a related task, the production of ignorance. When the press writes about the current dislocations, they must insist that no one knows what will happen. This pattern shows up whenever the media covers itself. When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”

newspaper-ad-revenueThe future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.

Meanwhile, back in the treasurer’s office, have a look at this chart. Do you see anything unclear about the trend line?” [Chart by Professor Mark Perry]

In that vein, here’s an untold story, from me: Over a year ago, when I went in for a series of interviews at the Washington Post, I talked to half a dozen long-time editors and reporters there from around the newsroom, all the way up to then managing editor John Temple. None of them — not one — could tell me how the paper would resolve the disruption to its advertising business model posed by the Internet, find and build new revenue or address pension obligations in the context of that challenge.

The sole exception to that lack of answers was my friend Andrew Pergam, then the director of video. He was the driving force behind PostTV, an online-only video channel that was and is profoundly post-print. Andrew noted to me that while it was hard to produce high quality video, they could charge much higher advertising rates for it. The Post reportedly had 42 employees devoted to PostTV, in late 2013. As people who’s tried it know well, making good video, much less “good TV” is HARD. By the end of 2013, however, PostTV decided to move away from shows to the 2-4 minute “easily digestible segments” that are increasingly the hallmark of online video. 

I thought then that it was a mistake, and the breathtaking online success of John Oliver’s signature blend of humor and investigative journalism at “Last Week Tonight” suggests (to me) that I was not wrong: people will watch longform video if it’s well done and engaging.

Oliver is obviously a singular talent, but he’s not the only person who can deliver great writing with timing, nor make the transition to a produced show, as Brian Stelter has demonstrated in moving from the New York Times to host CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

I think there’s huge opportunity for “papers” to create high quality longform video, if they can seize the day. Maybe, post-acquisition by Jeff Bezos, the Post will do so.

Here’s the thing: If they don’t, others will.The Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project’s 2014 State of the News Media shows video, mobile and digital-native publications soaring

Technological improvements lowering the barrier to entry, both for the audience and those in the news business, have spurred a wave of new entrants into the digital news video space. With 36% of U.S. adults recording videos on their cellphones, citizens are playing a valuable role in the news process, sharing videos of eyewitness moments around news events small and large. And both digital news outlets like Vice Media as well as legacy outlets like NBC took steps to develop approaches to digital video content in 2013.

In the 21st century, the convergence of media means that formerly print, broadcast, radio and online-only outlets are all now playing in the same sandbox: screens connected to the Internet. Consider: CNN and PBS are streaming online, producing online stories and documentaries. NPR is creating news apps and personalized players. The New York Times is experimenting with video, quizzes, Web-native interactives and mobile apps. Boing Boing blog creates videos that end up in the player on seats of Virgin Atlantic flights. Vice Media employs 1,100 people, looking to take documentary filmmaking around the globe.

I don’t mean to say that this is in any way easy for existing media institutions to adapt to, only that the necessity is clear. Again, Pew: 

…a closer look suggests that digital news video does not necessarily have a clear or simple path to becoming a major form of news in the future. Producing high-quality video – or even streaming it live – can be costly, and the payoff is not clear. Video advertising, while on the rise, amounts to just 10% of all digital ad revenue and just 2% of total ad revenue. Large distributors of video content like YouTube already account for a large portion of video watching on the web, and a hefty share of the revenue. And for traditional legacy providers – local TV stations and national networks – most of their audience and revenue are still in the legacy platforms, which may reduce these companies’ desire to invest in digital video in a big way. Non-digital news revenue on local and national broadcasts, as well as cable, now amounts to $16 billion a year.

That said, I’m pretty bullish about the prospects for media and tech companies to create new products and services that source, organize, report and distribute the news. What worries me most about daily newspapers going away, however, is the impact of their disappearance on reporting on state and local governments. As the Pew Research Center highlighted in June, there’s a growing deficit there: “Less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any kind of reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse.”

Moreover, local TV news — which remains profitable, for the moment, focused on traffic, sports, crime and weather — is not filling that gap. Per Pew, “gully 86% of local TV news stations do not assign even one reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse. Of the 918 local television stations identified by BIA/Kelsey and Nielsen, just 130 assign a reporter to cover the statehouse.”

While nonprofits and digital-first outlets like the Texas Tribune may fill the gap in the years ahead, they haven’t made it up yet. Pew reports that “about one-in-six (16%) of all the reporters in statehouses work for nontraditional outlets, such as digital-only sites and nonprofit organizations.”

My hope is that civic media, funded by the public and foundations, will be the way that local and state governments are well-covered. As I explored in my report (PDF) on my research on data journalism for Columbia Journalism School, “this situation may grow worse as more local newspapers close, as detailed in the landmark Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.”

As I described in the paper, one strategy for empowering citizens to be more informed about their communities and local government is the report’s recommendation to create local online hubs based upon open government data:

If the evolutionary descendants of EveryBlock are ever going to be a meaningful replacement for local newspapers, however, they’ll need to be sustainable, independent from government’s influence, deliver a valuable information product and be interesting. They’ll have to feature compelling storytelling that’s citizen-centric, uses adaptive design, and provides information that’s relevant to what people need to know, now.

That’s a tall order but there’s hope: Hundreds of entrepreneurial journalists are working on creating versions of that future today, with more to come.

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4 tips for social media optimization on Facebook from Robert Scoble

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NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has been trying to trick Facebook’s algorithm by starting his updates with “You guys! Exciting personal news: I’m moving to New York!” and “Big news in my personal life. I’m engaged!” and “I have some exciting personal news. A new job!”

What Rosen is experimenting with here is social media optimization (SMO), or the art and science of getting your updates seen on Facebook and other platforms. In 2014, SMO is still something of a dark art, but in an age when people are using social media to discover news, getting seen there is now as important to media, marketers and public officials who want to find immense audiences online as search engine optimization has become over the past decade.

Without this hack, Rosen says, “Facebook won’t show my posts to nearly all my subscribers.”

When they are shown, they get good engagement. The hack puts them in front of people who never received a thing from me, despite subscribing to me.

Robert [Scoble] is convinced that’s because I used some humor and sounded like a person. But it isn’t. It’s because I used some idiot phrases (“exciting personal news”) the algorithm responds to. That gives my posts a chance to be seen. When they are seen people engage with them. When people engage with them they are seen by more people.

Robert [Scoble] and Dave [Winer] are telling me it won’t work for long and I am sure that’s true. Meanwhile, I have many people telling me they never saw my posts and now they do.

Rosen’s tactic prompted Rackspace’s startup liason officer, Robert Scoble, a power user of social media platforms, to make several suggestions for crafting Facebook updates that get seen in the newsfeed. Here’s a short, paraphrased summary of those tips, courtesy of Robert Scoble’s comments on an update in Rosen’s feed.

1) Short, one paragraph updates often get more engagement than updates with a photo.

2) One photo in an update often gets more engagement than an update with multiple photos.

3) Including a call to action with a URL like “Click here for insight on open government, technology and society: http://e-pluribusunum.com” in an update leads to 80% more clicks.

4) Sort your friends into lists and then remove friends who don’t engage from those lists. (This is different from unfriending them.)

I’m both personally and professionally interested in this advice: I have 129,000 subscribers to my public Facebook updates but am quite certain that the vast majority never see what they subscribed to when they clicked the “Like” button. While the rare Facebook update blows up, many are just never seen.

Questions for you:

1) Have you tried these techniques? If so, what came of it?

2) What other SMO tips do you use?

3) Do you use Facebook lists?

Two cautionary notes

First, just as blackhat SEO leads Google to penalize people for gimmicks, Facebook could flag pages and profiles that overuse them, leading to account issues.

Second, marketers, social journalists and community managers that find success with SMO experiments should take note of a recent Pew Research Center survey on social media and the news, the source of the graphics on this page, which found that “visitors who come to a news site through Facebook or search display have far lower engagement with that outlet than those who come to that news website directly.” That means that SMO doesn’t replace SEO for publishers, or the need to create great stories and interactive content that stands on its own.

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Finally, it’s worth noting that social networks are full of people. Ultimately, the best way to “optimize” your interactions on Facebook or elsewhere is to be a human, not a marketer. Meaningfully communicating with other humans is going to require a different strategy than crafting headlines and URLs that highly relevant to search engines.

Hat Tip: Post by Jay Rosen.

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Don’t incite violence; Build urban cycling infrastructure and culture

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I read a column on cycling and cyclists in DC in today’s Washington Post Metro that left me more than a little angry. Although I allowed myself time to cool off, I still sent off a series of tweets a few minutes earlier than I should. Here’s the edited version.

Dear Mr. Milloy & the WashingtonPost editors who signed off on his column: yes, DC cyclists should obey traffic laws. Yes, resources for bicycle paths and other infrastructure should be distributed in all wards. That said, op-eds supporting neighbors hurting us will never, ever be OK. 6 years ago today, a 22 year-old woman was killed cycling in DC. She was in or near a bike lane. Was she at fault?

In Milloy’s column, he calls DC cyclists “bike terrorists” and writes that “some drivers” may think it’s worth paying $500 to hit them. (AKA me and my neighbors.) Hopefully, that doesn’t include moms & kids riding in lanes, although dads like me better take care. In the column, Milloy wrote that DC cyclists that ride on sidewalks are “lucky that someone hasn’t put a broomstick through the spokes of their wheels.” (I’ve had sticks go in there by accident; I was lucky to escape with only abrasions.)

As a cyclist in DC & Boston, I’ve been “doored,” hit by cars, run off the road by trucks, told to “get off my road” and had stones and bottles thrown at me. I wonder if Mr. Molloy believes that was all justified, simply because I dared to share the road with him and others who dislike cyclists so much. I sure hope not, but the tone and content of his column gives me little to think otherwise.

Adding bikes to roads that weren’t expressly designed with multiple uses in mind is a real challenge for urban policy makers. DC has seen a huge influx of people since July 2012 — more than 90,000, according to the U.S. Census — a larger proportion of whom want to cycle than the existing population. That’s going to cause some conflicts, including the racial and class contrasts Milloy calls out.

Fear, biases and anger around urban cycling can and do threaten lives and lead to life-changing injuries. If he and others want safer roads in DC, however, I suggest motorists and cyclists respect one another and the traffic laws, work to improve infrastructure and culture, and don’t spread hatred and implicit validations of violence.

[I illustrated this post with a picture of me on a bike-boat a couple of years ago, a vehicle that would be more at home on the Potomac than Pennsylvania Avenue]

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What responsibilities does Facebook have to share great journalism?

This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media  on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.

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Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.

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Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.

I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.

Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.

I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:

Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”

Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)

In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.

On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.

Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.

Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.

If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)

My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:

Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.

That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.

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That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.

Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.

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“High elf” arrested in Oregon, battling Morgoth

A sword-wielding elf spotted in Portland, Oregon by a local smartphone-wielding human, told police that he was “battling Morgoth,” who apparently had made his way back through the Door of Night and returned to Middle Earth in the form of a red BMW.

Morgoth is the evil higher being whose fall from grace as Melkor  in J. R. R. Tolkein’s mythical universe parallels that of Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  Sauron, who the general public knows from “The Lord of the Rings” movie epics, was one of Morgoth’s chief lieutenants.

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The fact that the young man in Oregon was wearing chain mail is a sign that he might just know what he was talking about: high elves in Tolkein’s universe wore mail, unlike the lightly armored wood elves in the Dungeons and Dragons universe and subsequent worlds.

In this case, however, it appears that he was a different sort of “high elf” — the man admitted to officers that he’d taken LSD before his epic battle with the Beamer — and that he wielding a machete, not an ancient elven blade forged in Gondolin.

According to KPTV, after treatment and release from a local hospital, the young human has been charged with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and menacing as a result of the elfscapade.

[IMAGE CREDIT: "The duel of Fingolfin and Morgoth," by Silentwitness97 at the LOTR Wiki]

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Preview of Season 4 of Games of Thrones: “A Foreshadowing”

Today’s mental health break: a behind-the-scenes featurette with the actors and directors of “Game of Thrones.”

Of dragons in a non-dragon world, and much more.

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