Category Archives: ecosystemics

What killed newsrooms? The Web? Management? Labor?


There is a palbable gloom in newsrooms today. Newspaper circulation continues its decades-long decline. Layoffs for the rank & file, and job insecurity for their editors, are the order of the day. How did we get here? That’s a darn good question considering that back in 1994, newspaper publisher Frank Daniels III at the Raleigh News & Observer, were bankrolling technical visionaries like George Schlukbier to create what amounted to the first Internet portals, I was a minor participant in a similar experiment pushed by then San Francisco Examiner publisher Will Hearst who worked through WELL-head John Coate to give a Northern California feel to These are two early and reasonably successful Web sites that nevertheless failed to put newspaper at the vanguard of the Web revolution. What went wrong?

A recent posting on drew this response from Howard Owens , director of digital publishing the suburban chain GateHouse Media. Owens suggested that newspapers had an online lead and blew it due to a:

“Critical strategic blunder: Scaling back online efforts circa 2001 after the Bubble burst. Pretty much every newspaper company stopped investing in online and went into a holding pattern. We fell behind and have yet to catch up. And maybe never will.”

That’s interesting. As a rank & file reporter I don’t get to see the annual internal budget at my own paper much less the industry trend so it may be that newspapers were current up through the era. But I don’t think underinvestment in new media accounts for anything but a tiny part of the current malaise of the newspaper industry. Rather I suspect that there was no way for newspaper leaders to justify the lower revuene-per-visitor they get from online. I think the online viewer is worth about 10 percent of the newspaper reader. I don’t know how any business, no matter how visionary, can willingly substitute a new-fangled, 10-cent-a-head advertising strategy for the tried-and-true 50-cents-per-eyeball  sale.

Of course that’s what newspaper management must now do, and in what may be a recession. Oh, well. Capital always survives. When the dust has settled the Big Money will buy whatever works and continue to be the big money. It knows this and therefore has no reason to listen to the likes of me.

Labor on the other hand, is screwed, and not entirely by a lack of vision from above. Newspaper reporters have become a breed of over-specialized and over-bred dog. We think the job is about scoops. Right? Those rare but delightful days when we walk into the newsroom on a cushion of air because our story is not only being read shamelessly on radio and television — our sources tell us they are getting calls from other, competing dailies which will feel obliged to run a story the next day. That is the acme of daily newspapering — to have a scoop that other papers must follow the next day.

But every aspect of that scenario is obsolete. There are fewer competing paper. Most of the stories any of us read or write come from press releases and the rare few tips that pan out into stories are generally self-serving. And in the network age there is no fact worth knowing that isn’t widely available to the whole damn planet not long after it is known by a few. So if you did score an old-fashioned, paper-down-the-road-gotta-run-it-tomorrow scoop, it’s a non-event when it comes to the survival of your paper or papers in general. Because real news, the stuff that you gotta hafta know — the score of the Giants upset over the Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl, for instance — you learn within minutes by osmosis and there is no psychic nor renumerative credit to being the disseminator of that information. Google, for instance, which hires no journalists but merely aggregates their product by skimming the Web and presenting a list of headlines in a newsreader, is now felt to be one of the most trusted news brands in the world (see the citation on that in this posting).

So I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be doing as newsies to live long and prosper. And perhaps that’s the problem.

Online wunderkind launches local database, EveryBlock


Ever since Adrian Holovaty got his bachelor’s degree in journalism from University of Missouri–Columbia in 2001, he has been building Web sites that let people find the information they want in contrast to old media that mass produce content from which readers must choose. His projects and credits include:

In 2007 Holovaty won a $1 million grant from the Knight 21st Century News Challenge. He used it to pull together the team that is launching –  a grander version of earlier data-aggregation efforts. 

It’s early days and there’s not much to see or do yet. Read the EveryBlock launch announcement to learn where things are headed. Find more details in the Poynter Institute interview where Holovat talks about “geocoding” the news because:

“people tend to be more interested in news that happens near them. It’s as simple as that!”

EveryBlock is the data spine of a localized information kiosk. I hope this spine, in DNA-like fashion, will become the core of a local ecosystem of the other uses we derive from media: discussion, entertainment, commentary, sales and commerce.

Not yet clear, at least to me, is the business model to support local news and search; how will EveryBlock interoperate with blogs and local news producers, old and new? how will it build or interoperate with community forum efforts like how will it sell advertising and then move beyond advertising to some form of localized e-commerce?



Anecdotal ‘poll’ guesses at blog influence on reporters

The bullet points in the telephone survey by the marketing firm Brodeur were impressive but the fine print undermined their authority. A press release about the survey said:

  • Journalists are increasingly active participants in the blogosphere: One in four reporters (27.7%) have their own blogs and nearly one in five (16.3%) have their own social networking page.

  • About half of reporters (47.5%) say they are “lurkers” – reading blogs but rarely commenting.

 Then I read to the last paragraph, in which readers are usually told how the information was gleaned:

“the online survey was conducted among a random sample of North American reporters and editors between December 18, 2007 and January 3, 2008. Some 4,000 reporters were invited via email to participate; a total of 178 completed responses.” (italics added)

If by random Brodeur meant “we don’t know who responded, why and how they differed from the vast majority of non-responders,” I would understand. But random in this case does not mean the sample has a scientific or statistical validity and so whatever its findings they should be taken as strong anecdotalism — there are 178 responses — but I would suspect they self-selected themself for inclusion in ways that greatly make this survey not easy to extrapolate. I am a reporter like the 3,822 (add that to 178 to get to the 4000) people who were invited but declined to participate* and what peaked my interest in this headline was astonishment that anybody had actually taken an accurate reading of this group.

 As it turns out, no one has, which makes the survey more useful as a suggestion than as a statistic.

* * *

* (I don’t answer PR polls because they are generally intended to ascertain my views toward news-makers; reporters are not supposed to have views or they are expected to stifle any feelings they might have; I have occasionally been offered small sums, from $25 to $100, to answer questions but have always declined. I’m not suggesting the size of the bribe be higher; that would only make it more annoying to feel obliged to refuse.)

The continuing nichification of knowledge


Trapazoidal niche at Incan site in Ollantaytambo, Peru (source)

Media are mutating from mass to niche. OK. We get that. But this image plucked off the Web this captures not only the tinyness of the word but also the characterteristic that is its primary definition, “an ornamental recess in a wall.”

That recess is a subtraction from the wall and that subtractive quality is what struck me this morning when I read a blurb in Paid Content announcing that a former Boston Globe political columnist will become managing editor of, a soon-to-be network of state-specific political news websites that appear poised to sprout from the New York Observer, the political weekly based in Manhattan.

By all means read the press release for details, but the web site isn’t live and its plans or prospects are not my point. Rather this announcement is a case is exemplary of the subtraction that has started and will continue to hit the journalism side of media just as it has already rocked the business side of media. We’re all familiar with this latter concept. Craig’s List started to subtract classified ad revenues; et all started to poach on the job-wanted ads; Yahoo and its cohort have siphoned off display advertising, and so on. shows how the subtractive process will unfold on the content-producing side. A mass media firm, especially the daily newspapers that I know best, is an organization of generalists. This may generate some objections because there are indeed specializations, between writers and photographers, for instance; and copy editors differ from assigning editors and so on. But a mainstream media organization demands  generalization of its content producers because today the mass audience may be focused on the earthquake, tomorrow the coup, the day after that the grisly murder and so on. This is fresh in my mind because this week, I returned to work after a two-week vacation to do an obituary, two different stories on storm damage and one on my beat, which is technology. That’s not a bad thing so far as I am concerned because it breaks the monotony and in some cases is pure fun, such as when I got to slide down a muddy hillside with a storm damage repair crew. With that story occurred another novelty in my work life — I had my first photo published in the paper using the multimedia camera I was carrying. I am a reporter in a union shop that went on strike in 1994, in part over an issue that was framed as “no cameras for photographers.” I walked the picket line back then even though I have always felt that, on that issue, the union was wrong. Anyhow, I guess that’s settled.

But the shakeup in who creates what parts of content, where and how is only going to accelerate as the thing demonstrates. Every mass media outlet of consequence has a statehouse staff. Will now suck the political reporting function out of the paper and centralize it somewhere? I don’t know if that particular business will succeed but I am convinced the answer is YES! because the inexorable power of nichification is driven by the impulse toward efficiency. Thats what economics is all about. The drive for efficiency. And in so many walks of life specialization is efficient. Boring, maybe, but efficient. God forbid you ever need coronary artery bypass surgery for instance make sure you pick the place that has the drive-thru CABG window because you do not want Dr. Marcus Welby cutting open your chest, you want the sonofabitch who splices arteries for a living.

How well does that analogy transfer to content and how does all this play out? How the hell would I know. But I am certain that every force in the world of media is prying loose the mortar in that wall I depicted above, and popping out stones at an accelerating pace. What I lay awake some nights wondering is: how many stones have to pop out before the godamn wall breaks?

Nokia: entertainment, media now a circle game


Does web culture create a virtuous cycle?

Web-enabled smart phones or PDAs are the emerging platform for digital culture, building on the foundation laid down by the desktop and notebook PC. With no stake in these legacy technologies, Nokia has been at the forefront of discerning the habits of the young mobile tech consumers who are leading this wave of wireless adoption. In December Nokia summarized the results of 9,000 intervierws with 16-35 year olds. Here is the lead paragraph:

“Up to a quarter of the entertainment consumed by people in five years time will have been created, edited and shared within their peer circle rather than coming out of traditional media groups. This phenomenon (has been) dubbed ‘Circular Entertainment’ “

I blogged about this study last month and today when I saw a re-release of the results through the Center for Media Reseach (which is a good, if late, filter that culls such reports from many sources) but I revive the story today with the same mix of skepticism and enthusiasm — plus an additional link that helps emphasize the significance of this finding.

My skepticism, last month and now, is how in the world one would put as figure (one-in four) on the concept of collaborative entertainment. I suspect the report writers had to concoct a number because percentages convey a certain authority. That’s OK because what strikes me is that Nokia is telling us that young people are not content to merely consume media. Many of them — whether one-in-four, five or three hardly matters — will alter, convert or create media products. And my hope and suspicision is that this act of creation or participation will create a more media literate and therefore less gullible citizenry. You know the saying: laws, media, you name it, is like sausage; it changes a person’s tastes to see what get stuffed into the sausage sleeve.

Ditto for media and politics. At least so I prefer to believe. This is the hope that I see in new media — that information and entertainment will not be, like mass media products, something handed down. Rather media will be something passed around and embossed or embued with some point of view of topspin that helps each flavor of the message find its audience.

In looking about this morning for a graphic that might represent the concept of circular collabotation I found the picture above on the web site of Steve Bosserman, a self-described agrarian populist from Kansas. That is remarkable because I consider myself an agrarian populist, though obviously by choice rather than birth given that I grew up in Brooklyn.

Bosserman’s graphic captures what I think to be the emerging cycle of information dissemination; ideas will get passed about and chewed on, the way dogs pass bones, until the darn thing is cracked open and exposed right down to the marrow. Collaborative media empower small teams of like-minded individuals. Toward what ends? Well, those are likely to be as varied as the range of individual inclinations. I’m not worried about what people are likely to do with their newfound power to put their stamp on imagery and ideas handed down from on high. As people build media products they will gain media literacy. And that must eventually make for a better informed citizenry. 

Blogito ergo, huh?


MiniMediaGuy: Something to say, or just the need to say something? 

This blog debuted in January 2005 with a purpose in mind: to organize media producers into legal cooperatives to help them get better pay for creating content just as farmers have banded together to sell fruits, nuts and grains.

Alas, this idea has gathered no support. The Knight 21st Century Challenge and J-Lab, have rejected my pleas for grants. That is not surprising nor discouraging given how many apply relative to those few who are chosen. More demoralizing is the absence of attention to postings in which I have outlined the potential benefits of a media producers’ coop: group health insurance; a forum to meet collaborators; and an agent to negotiate better terms for independent media makers. (Here is a link to the first of three postings on that idea.)

So lately I’ve begun to wonder: Why have I spent roughly 90 minutes per workday writing upwards of 700 postings over the last three years?

It ain’t for the traffic. Awstats, the statistical package that comes with my WordPress installation, counted just under 105,000 unique visitors to in 2007. While that’s roughly double the 50,036 visitors recorded in 2006, I’d have to draw 100,000 uniques per month to generate commerically meaningful traffic.

It also ain’t for the conversation, which is the mythic goal of blogging. WordPress has counted 310 comments over the last two years — versus 82,253 spams that were blocked by the filtering program, Askimet. That signal-to-noise ratio suggests that is little more than a convenient place from which to advertise unwanted crap.

So why persist? Well, it must be obvious that I am stubborn to the point of contrariness and also posessed of a foolish pride that imagines I can both discern things not obvious to others and then persuade them to adopt, or consider, my views.  Given the aforementioned mathematical evidence it could be argued that I am also delusional.

I see in a nobler light. I love to write.  Like the bus driver who takes car trips on weekends, I spend my spare time doing what I get paid to do at my day job. I find facts, discover patterns and link ideas in amusing or logical ways. What greater satisfaction is possible for a human being than to write?  Not eating. Not running a marathon. Not even hot sweaty sex. Those are animal pleasures. As humans we should set the bar higher. We should exercise that trait which makes us unique. Cogito ergo sum. More than four centuries have passed since Descartes coined that phrase but the truth remains. We think therefore we are. Writing is thought given shape. We are the first humans to have the ability to share our thoughts so effortlessly and easily on a global scale. To me the real question is why are there only 50 million bloggers when there are a billion people with Internet access? What is preventing the rest of the race from demonstrating their humanness in this simple way?

Of course I may hold writing in too high an esteem. The economy seems to be devaluing paid prose. Why pay when someone, somewhere, will post the content for free? Even my philosophical pretensions are undermined by writers of greater accomplishment. In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell said “for all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

I think better of my efforts. I imagine myself among the cohort that is changing the world. Thousands upon millions of bloggers have begun to take media into their own hands. They’re learning how to uncover facts, correct falsehoods, tell stories and create communities for change. This gradual expansion of media power has the potential to extend democracy. I say potential because I do not believe in inevitability. Most people use the Internet as a gigantic juke box or vending machine. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Web will mutate the couch potato into the two-legged sloth that gets its amusements not from the stationary television but from the mobile phone.

Nevertheless for stubbornness if nothing else I continue to believe that contributes to some higher purpose. And when I am bitten by doubt – such as now, with little to show for three years of effort– what worries me inot Orwell’s baby remark. To me childishness is quitting the hike just because you can’t see over the hill. Instead, my worries revolve around something my dad used to say when I was a boy.

“Thomas,” he would tell me, “There are some people who have something to say, and some people who have to say something.”

And now he is dead and I don’t know whether he would consider me one of the former, or the latter or, more likely, a bit of both.


Is Homo Journalisticus too specialized to survive?


Professional journalism has become so specialized it may not be able to adapt to a new financial ecosytem 

Poynter Institute commentator Steve Outing recently wrote a post, Why Journalists Suck at Business, that he wrote in response to a similar article byMediaShift author Mark Glaser (Journalists, Bloggers Have a Sorry History at Startups).

I left a variant of the following remarks as a comment to Outing’s post.

I have had an unusual career, if it could be so called. I have started two businesses, including a community newspaper that is still in print some 17 years later. So I’ve done business and major metro journalism. The latter is so highly specialized as to be ripe for extinction. Newspaper journalists disdain business or are at very least ignorant of the details of their own industry, be it ad sales or circ or whatever. Its that Chinese Wall business. Journalists are supposed to be immune from ad pressure (and also believe in the tooth fairy).

This aspect of our professional culture makes news-gatherers ill adapted to a new world in which journalism is going to be downsized by corporate media and unsupported by Web 2.0 media (which rarely pays for user-generated content).  Journalists must find the missing link – sales.

If you are an entrepreneurial journalist and you find a salesperson is interested in your approach, get down on both knees and begin kissing their feet, starting with the soles. But chances are you cannot find such a person because salespeople are, by nature, money-driven. Public policy or “mission” journalism is not.

So YOU, the journalist with the mission, will have to learn to sell. I, so far, have not learned that lesson. In fact I blew a good chance back in 1989 when my wife and I started our community newspaper, the North Coast Journal. I was the editor. I asked my wife, the hippie chick, to sell. She did a fair  job. We had a nursing boy at the time and we used to joke that her closing trick was to open a couple of buttons and suckle the kid. I was too pure for that. She did my dirty work.

Nowadays I’d almost take the chemical treatments to develop mammaries, and wet nurse some kid if I thought it’d help me develop a news media business model. On a more useful note, perhaps, I once blogged about Ventura County Star editor Joe Howry, who excoriated print ad salespeople and bemoaned the fact that journalists are not in control of their revenues.

One last thing. Why is the wall Chinese? Does it go back to the Opium Wars???