Tag Archives: NewTools2008

Friday errata (not erotica, silly!)

I have been feeling not so well and less energetic than usual but have not forgotten that I left unfinished last week the essay, “Learning to think like a molecule.” I don’t quite muster the enthusiasm to finish it today but I do want to share a few squibs to get my fingers and brain cells working in unison.

Want more clicks, provide more headlines: This tip from an online publisher who runs a series big branded sites. There is 0.65 correlation between the number of headlines posted and the average click through rates to revenue-producing advertisements. That means there is a two out of three chance that more items per page will increase the click-through rate. But don’t expect Google AdSense to be a money-maker this publisher said. The allure of its tiny ads has greatly faded on this person’s site, from the $20,000 per month range in the 2004 time frame to mere hundreds per month now! That reminds me that I have seen mentions that interspersing the AdSense into the body of the text versus on the side increases click-through but if a rate of increase was mentioned I have forgotten. One last tip: travel ads offer good payouts, in the tens of dollars versus the tens of cents, this publisher says.

Strength in weeklies says VillageSoup.com chief: Richard Anderson runs VillageSoup.com, a web site joined to community weeklies in Maine. Anderson has created an open source content management system for running an online website. You’ll find a good peek behind the scenes of his operation in a posting by Amy Gahran of the Poynter Institute (Gahran mentioned other content management sites in a prior item). At the conference last week Anderson presented what amounts to a sales pitch for adoption of the VillageSoup system and I am not sure if there are recurring charges for support or whether a Knight Grant that he won is supposed to underwrite the proliferation of his system. But he mede a few interesting assertions — notably a comment to the effect that there is the potential for a weekly news outlet for every 30,000 people. He thinks the weekly is the best bet in terms of periodicity for a print product and his online software seems to be geared toward gathering easy advertising support plus easy user-generated input. These are combined with staff-written and edited copy to produce the weekly print fodder – or so I gleaned. Do visit the site and if you have a weekly or an unserved population of 30,000 demanding attention, perhaps VillageSoup is for you.

Shame on MediaPost for the Pollyanna headline “smaller newspapers still thriving.” Really? Upon reading the story, however, we learn that:

“total Sunday circulation of newspapers with circulations less than 20,000 was down a modest 2.7% compared to 4.6% for newspapers overall, and . . . Many are also enjoying revenue growth . . . (in part because) . . . small markets present more barriers to entry to online competitors than big metro areas . . . from news aggregators and broadcast news outfits that post text stories on the Web.”

Please, this is not thriving so much as it is milking the local distribution monopoly by jacking up print ad rates and benefiting from the geographic isolation that makes them disinteresting to big Web brands. If there are 30,000 people in these areas maybe the local weekly should download the VillageSoup software and light a fire under their complacency.

Growing media out of community centers

Frog, lily, pond. Media, center, community.

Reformers want to create community media to serve neighborhoods or affinity groups who fall through the cracks of mass media. There was much talk of community media at the Journalism that Matters conference I attended last week. The focus was on non-profit or advocacy media. But how are such a media enterprises to be organized and supported? As volunteer efforts or with paid staff? And where will such media live?

Maybe the business model for grassroots media reformers is to create non-profit community centers. Doing what? Whatever is needed in a given community. It could be job placement and training; or a day care center for working families. For virtual communities conferences or conventions could substitute for such a center. But I do not believe that community can be entirely virtual. A lasting community cannot live solely in ideas. People must feel some personal affinity with their fellows and physical contact is a condition for building or maintaining that bond. Let the media grow out of the community center.

The center model makes financial sense for non-profit media startups.  Many foundations exist to serve needy communities. To create a community media outlet start by identifying a need that could be delivered in a storefront setting; cost out the service (day-care could be useful almost anywhere); build in an additional expense to fund the media overlay on top of the real-world service; and create a plan to make this enterprise into a self-sustaining non-profit institution.

Idealistic? Yes but not implausible. When I mentioned this idea a friend in San Francisco his immediate comment was, “Oh, like 826 Valencia!” That is the name of a community center started by writer Dave Eggers to teach expository writing to children 8-18, especially those for whom English is a second language.

I’m not aware that media is part of the 826 Valencia mission. But the general notion of creating a place to deliver useful services is a great starting point. People are busy. They need help with finances, health and education before they can become engaged in civics. A community center that addresses their real world needs can grow a media overlay that brings them into the civic discussion. Help first, media second.

(This posting was inspired in part by Maurreen Skowran, who I met st the JTM event. She wants to put Internet-connected computer kiosks in laundromats thinking moms ands dads will bring the kids while they do the clothes, the kids will get on the computers and show the folks a thing or two. Simple, personal, concrete and more likely to have a positive effective than some fleeting form of media.)

Fringe realists seek to remake media

It’s back to the newsroom today after spending the last four days immersed in a gathering of about 150 journalists, technologists, educators and entrepreneurs at the Journalism that Matters (JTM) conference held in Silicon Valley. Chris Peck, a newspaper editor from Tennessee and one of the conveners of the meeting, opened the gathering Wednesday evening by talking about how, before the invention of matches, people would carry around embers in a box and use this spark for fire-starting. What embers will I carry away?

Let’s start with the sense of community that comes from reconnecting with old professional friends like J-school teacher Charlotte-Anne Lucas and web publisher Tom Murphy, not to mention the many new friends and kindred spirits with whom I hope to hatch future schemes and dreams. But if I had to pick three take-aways they would be:

  • looking for ways to support journalism in the free-for-all environment of the web;
  • the recognition among media reformers of the need to cooperate; and
  • – the unlikelihood and difficulty of achieving this owing to wildly differing notions of what journalism is, should be or can do.The focus on finances was evident throughout the four days of the JTM conference that shared its Saturday finale with a meeting of the Bay Area chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “We’re blowing up the wall, we have to,” said Cynthia Gorney, who moderated a lively SPJ panel discussion on a search for business models — a phrase journalists once disdained. In truth the main business model that has thus far emerged for journalism, other than advertising, is the tin cup. “We’ve heard a lot about the public radio funding model,” said Bill Densmore, another organizer of the JTM conference. Forder newspaper editor David Talbot, who led the founding team at Salon.com, talked about trying to raise $40 a year from 100,000 people to get half the funding for a plan-on-the-drawing-board to create a new, publicly-financed newsroom in San Francisco. “If you build it they will come,” Talbot predicted.Attendees at these overlapping events were convinced that the public is hungry for serious conversation on the issues that rule their lives. San Francsisco journalist Rose Aguilar told the SPJ gathering of interviewing people from small towns in her post 2004-election trip through the so-called Red States, and finding them eager to talk about health care, the economy and Iraq. Aguilar, who attended church and conducted interviews outside WalMart parking lots, said “People are sick” of simplistic and divisive mass media coverage. And what will reformers offer in place of today’s fare? A bewlidering array of niche interests, in keeping with the times, and a challenging array of definitions of what constiutes journalism. Among the JTM conferees, for instance, were two Muslim women hoping to launch a web site devoted to exploring the unknown dimensons of Islam. Another attendee was a J-school prof hoping to build a network of 100 journalists to go into underserved communities to become their news-gatherers. A few attendees were what I would consider to be political actitivists, to whom words and images were tools or weapons to stimulate specific actions. Such a drift made me extremely uncomfortable. Less provocative at least to my way of thinking were the unapologetic idealists who simply argued that media should focus on positive stories of people changing the world instead of the present if-t-bleeds-it-leads sensibility.I came away from the event convinced that if this reform movement is going anywhere but to its next gathering that the people on the outside of the system will have to agree on something more than that they don’t like what’s going on inside the system. I say this of course as an ill-tempered reporter from a middling metropolitan daily who feels as if the only thing holding together the reform community is antipathy to mass media. There needs to be more common ground because I did indeed hear in many different discussions the same yearning bordering on a recognition of necessity that cooperation and affiliation would be essential to helping this smoldering reform effort catch fire. For those not in attendance this was an unconference (thanks Kaliya Hamlin it was fun!). That means each morning people created topic for workshops they wanted to conduct and Michael Melillo, a New Jersey software executive, convened one topic for people interested in forming a federation of independent media. I joined that circle and worked with a handful of others, including Persephone Miel of Harvard’s Berkman Center, on an off throughout the rest of Friday. I wouldn’t say anything was decided except that the combinatory impulse was strong and therefore effort was worth more work but at a Friday evening gathering called by Tom Stites, an important voice was added to the chorus for combination: citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor talked about forming cooperatives, like food coops, in this emerging reform movement.

    This was the first time I had attended a media reform conference, and I paid my own way (unlike the eight editorial staffers sent by the competing Media News including Suzanne Bohan and Chris O’Brien) so I had a pretty high threshhold for satisfaction. I found enough encouragement, especially in the federation topic, to warrant my attendance in the next in the series of these sessions, something called NewPamphleteers.org in June. By the way, this would be a good time to note that inconsistent branding is inconsistent with doing business and the tendency of these media reform things to pop up under different names like a game of literary whack-a-mole makes it all the more difficult to get any momementum behind any idea.

    Which brings me to my closing thought — this reform movement desperately needs some baseline definition of journalism other than it-aint-the-mass-media-variety. Former newspaper editor Geneva Overholser, whose “Manifesto for Change” launched this particular sect of media reformer, took an off-the-cuff stab at such a definition in her appearance at Saturday’s SPJ event. Journalism, she said, has to be about “verification, transparency, accountability.” That a good concise mantra with which to start what I think is the necessary stage of branding how the new journalism is going to distinguish and define itself.

Learning to think like a molecule

In 16 years as a daily newspaper reporter I’ve covered some mind-expanding stories including the race to map the human genome which revealed nothing so much as our stunning ignorance of the baffling complexity of the smallest, dumbest purposeful thing in the universe, the organic macromolecule.

Molecules, you will recall, are strings of atoms. Macromolecules are more complex strings. I’m not certain whether only organic molecules can form macromolecules; polymers are non-organic and may be macromolecules. But I do know that organic macromolecules, such as most famously DNA, do engage in purposeful action. And non-organic molecules do not. The most prolific macromolecules are more colloquially known as proteins. Our science has no idea how many proteins exist in life’s repertoire. But what we do know is that proteins are tiny little machines that run every function in every living organism. These macromolecules — think of proteins as long strands of rough pearls — literally fold and unfold, just as you might open and close your hand. Proteins are the smallest functioning unit of cells. They are the gears and levers of life. Proteins direct my fingers to press the appropriate keys on my keyboard. Proteins focus your eyes on the words and conduct them to the brain where they are reformulated as thought. To borrow a phrase that might succinctly explain the magic of life: It’s the macromolecules, stupid!

I felt obliged to offer that background before I tried explain what molecules have to do with media because it was a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, speaking at a biotechnology conference in 2003, who first drew the connection between the ability of stupid proteins to perform miraculous feats and the possibility that the machinations of macromolecules hinted at a revolution in the coordination of human affairs.

The conference in question turned out to be my last junket as a biotech reporter and it was held in a swell California venue, the seaside city of Monterey. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule which opened up a new way of thinking about the inner workings of cells as collections of gazillions of complex organic machines.

My published clip for that event made no mention of the Marine general’s remarks* which were so amazingly incongruous so as to stick in my head. So imagine this ramrod-straight Marine Corps general telling a few dozen slouching scientists and their hangers on like me that he found leadership inspiration in molecular biology. More often than not, the general explained, the Corps anticipated that future “battles” might involve two or three Marines from a platoon engaged in guerrilla conflict, none above the rank of private –  and God forbid they should get cut off and out-of-radio contact, and be unable to think for themselves.

Now despite the fact that enlisted Marines are commonly known as “jarheads” I do not mean to suggest that the general compared them to dumb-as-brick proteins. But as a former enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, I still recall quite vividly the night when a bourbon-and-cigarette-breathed drill instructor stood nose-to-nose with me to shout, “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR MOMMA, BOY?” — which absurd question I did not take personally but rather as proof that insofar as the Navy was concerned I was indeed a dumbfuck as was the swinging dick to my left and right to use the Boot Camp parlance.

Thus it struck me rather forcefully to hear this retired jarhead general talk about a form of organization that fell rather lightly on the rank and file because on the day that two riflemen get stuck in the boonies, back to back, with nothing between them and being overrun but their training and wits, they will be truly fucked if they have been conditioned to act purposefully only when orders are delivered in a shout at nose distance.

That was in 2003, but since I was then 49 and did not anticipate going into combat I had no immediate use for the thought. So I parked it until three years later when a brief meeting outside yet another conference in Monterey — Technology, Entertainment and Design or TED — caused me to dredge it up from memory.

Again my story about that TED conference made no mention of my chat with Rod Beckstrom, a co-author of “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book subtitled: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” But you can see the obvious connection and understand my receptivity to the notion of leaderless yet purposeful groups. However, as I had no venue to write about that in the newspaper I once again put that fanciful notion to bed.

Recently, however, I revived this idea of a leaderless media in a posting of my own titled, The Pyramid and the Cloud. That posting looked backwards at corporate media and was part of a series of blog entries in which I argue that hierarchy of journalism is at war with its truth-seeking mission. That is quite a conundrum given that the only journalists who draw regular paychecks work for corporate hierarchies. Those essays which start with a posting titled, Take Me To Your Leader, suggest reforms for corporate media to loosen their control mechanisms through blogging and thus delegate more independent truth-seeking power to the rank-and-file.

So I obviously hope for some movement in that direction on the part of Organized Journalism by which reference I do not mean to liken Corporate Media to the La Cosa Nostra. But after 16 years inside the system, I fear that newspaper leaders may not be as progressive as Marines in recognizing the need for new forms of organization to meet the operational challenges of competition for attention in a networked world (here let me mention “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” the book/philosophy by Web guru David Weinberger).

Meanwhile, let me redirect my molecular thinking toward creating a metaphor that would help unorganized journalists aggregate in purposeful ways with minimal overhead. That is the lesson I extract from nature. Systems of extraordinary complexity can function smoothly with no one shouting orders! Tomorrow I will suggest how some of the mechanisms to coordinate purposeful combinations of scattered content creators may already exist — and how we can use molecular biology as a template to help us understand what other software tools, social norms and perhaps loose organization might be needed to derive greater purpose and profit from Disorganized Journalism which is not a knock on citizen journalism but a statement of fact.

* Though I did not write about Lt. General Paul Van Riper’s remarks on molecular biology I learned that he had played an Iranian leader in a 2002 wargame in which his tactics inflicted, on a U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, the worst (simulated) defeat in naval history. I wrote a story about that in 2003. Earlier this year a New York Times article about U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Gulf repeated Van Riper’s lesson about how a loosely coordinated attack by inferior forces had so completely bamboozled America’s overconfident military brass.

Interactive, engaged, profitable media

The market research firm Borrell Associates predicts today that online display advertising and search advertising are both poised to peak in a few years. The report, excerpted in Paid Content, says:

“The real growth story in internet marketing expenditures is going to be increasingly focused on online promotions.”

That neatly corroborates the notion I advanced yesterday that media has to move beyond simple advertising — and simple news for that matter — to recreate a value proposition for the 21st Century subscriber. And yes that suggests media will have to demonstrate some form of buy-in from its audience.

This may seem counterintuitive when it is difficult to get Web browsers to register their to get access to archives. And let’s be clear — we cannot turn back the clock and force people to pay for online news that they now get for free. The Wall Street Journal, with the richest niche in our global village, may remain the anomaly. The New York Times couldn’t make its readers pay.

So what is the answer?

Large media companies should become computer-assisted almanacs. Today they serve up the topical information of the day. As that commodity business dies they will have to get good at answering the burning questions of their subscribers such as when and where is soccer registration. That is my brief distillation of the 108-page report (PDF) produced by Stephen Gray of the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next 2.0 project. Poynter Institute business analyst Rick Edmonds reviewed the report and wrote that:

“newspaper companies need to redefine themselves as the ‘local information and connection utility’ in their communities . . . a suitably big and audacious goal would be to create a wiki’ed “Localpedia,” comprehensive but built with volunteered user content.”

Startup media should imagine what kind of company or publication or community would they build around interactivity. That is the novelty. Stay close to interaction and it will lead to the new ways of making money. One set of suggestions as to how comes from cyberpioneer Kevin Kelly in his essay 1000 True Fans. In short, make yourself a minor celebrity to some group of people who will support you. In a follow up guest essay musician Richard Rich tells about living just such a life: “I’m my own booking agent, my own manager, my own contract attorney, my own driver, my own roadie. I sleep on people’s couches . . . ”

Okay, so he never promised you a rose garden. The point is that one-way media and its advertising-centric business models are dead or dying. Two-way media requires engagement. With so many stars in the entertainment or information universe why does the audience frequent your outlet?

Encourage the habitual visitor by providing easy ways for them to interact (I wonder how to do that in the context of a solo blog — comments are so laborious and they expose the writer — suggestions ????).

Then think creatively about what financial support might attach to those interactions. If the Borrell report cited today is correct the market is already moving towards two-way promotional activity and away from one-way advertisements. Will profit follow interactivity? That is the hope.

A news media not in thrall to advertising?

One of my daily newspaper colleagues wrote a story Sunday whose headline should serve as a wake up call to the beleaguered media industry: “Dollar’s fall forces new standard of frugality.” It’s a good piece that notes what may seem obvious — the probable recession, the mortgage bust, the persistent trade deficit and the sudden distaste of foreign investors for American debt will restrain the credit-driven consumption binge that can no longer be sustained.

Now let’s think about that in the context of a mass media industry in which display advertising money is being shifted to search-driven queries and sponsorship advertising at far lower cost per thousand than newspapers of television. The TNS Media Intelligence snapshot in 2007 repeated the trend we already know — newspaper and television post declines, Internet posts double digit growth.

Now the nation has slipped into what appears to be a housing-driven recession of uncertain depth and duration. What happens when advertising spending, pegged to economic growth, shrinks? The data suggest that advertisers are looking for new and supposedly more cost effective ways to spend money. When Advertising Age surveyed the media job scene earlier this year marketing grew off the charts. Spenders are using blogs and social networks to burrow inside peer groups (the AdAge article is behind a firewall; a past blog entry has excerpts).

Mass media advertising that rains down on the general populace is so 20th Century. Mass media are already being clobbered by Google et al on display ads. Craigslist and its fellow travelers are cashing in on classifieds. Now comes a spending contraction coupled with a shift in advertising fashion.

When does the news start to get good? Well not now because I truly believe that we are entering a period on which the word “frugality” is likely to make a lot more headlines. We may be coming to the end of 80 to 100 years of a consumption economy and a mass media that coexisted quite nicely inside a cocoon of ever-increasing spending on creature comforts encouraged by advertising messages that encouraged that consumption.

And my point? Advertising is not going to completely evaporate but it will never come back the way it used to be for the times they are a changing. The audience is changing. And that means that as we look for a new business model we have to take our cue from the times. We live in a knowledge economy. We are told knowledge is power. Does it not therefore follow that knowledge is also valuable and can therefore command money?

Tomorrow I will outline how journalism can stop being the “Extra, extra, read all about it!” loss leader for advertising — and start to bring home the bacon by selling information, connections and community.

Grassroots democracy requires attentive local media

Next week I will be among the 200 or so people who will meet in Silicon Valley for the New Tools 2008 conference meant to foster “innovation, democracy and a new ecology of news.”

My first assignment for that event is to introduce fellow participant Tom Stites, who interviewed me as well. This is a great gimmick to warm up any group — have participants to question and introduce each other. Stites and I spoke via cell phone. I sat in a coffee shop on San Francisco’s Market Street while he popped in and out of the coverage zone while his wife them to a family event back East.

Tom Stites is a gray hair with a passion for democracy and a fear that weak mass media coverage isn’t giving Americans the news they need to grab the levers of power. News media should establish the factual outlines of public debates so the participants can argue over what matters. But, he said, “News seems to have forgotten that. It’s all talk, talk, talk, talk.”

He recalled a 20 year old story that struck him as an exemplar of journalism that did the job. Wall Street Journal reporters Daniel Hertzberg and James B. Stewart unraveled the October 19, 1987 stock market crash in a story that won them 1988 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Only professional journalism can develop that sort of baseline information. Bloggers and citizen media just don’t have the time or clout. And it is only with accurate understandings that citizens can hope to control their increasingly complex world.

“I am a democracy nut,” Stites said. “And I am worried that there are vast anti-democratic forces gaining ground everywhere.”

So what will this conference do to counter that drift and what will Stites bring to the party? Well, there will be be plenty of “talk, talk talk.” Shame on my irreverent-self for injecting that self-deflating levity. More seriously the conference will bring together reformers who want to use the democratizing technologies of social networking, group voting, easy-to-make-media and the global publishing to rebuild the news ecosystem — and the democratic muscle which it empowers.

Toward these ends Stites will bring what he calls “an entrepreneuriall DNA that has been a curse and a blessing” because it has made him want to tinker with systems that his bosses thought worked just swell because the media made money.

Nowadays every part of media is broken from the pathetic performance of the press in regurgitating the lies about WMDs to the layoffs that make employed professionals like me watch their pennies and perhaps their mouths for fear of being swept up in the newsroom layoffs.

In the face of such gloom Stites will bring his problem-solving attitude and experience. “I’m an inventive guy,” he said. “I find new and better ways to do everything.” And he will also bring an optimism that sees past the current malaise toward a better and more informative media. “What I am hoping is that there will be a significant not-for-profit journalism enterprise,” said Stites, who has plans along those lines.

So there’s a snapshot of one would-be change agent. I’ll have more to say in advance of the conference. I’ve been recharging my batteries and rebuilding my finances after a pretty intense period of blog-writing in which I attacked Orthodox Journalism and proposed, in a four-part series (starting here), how to reform corporate media.

It will be energizing to connect with Stites and others of similar intent. What I’m learning about new media is that it’s not about who doesn’t listen. The mass is inert. Change is about those who do listen, who find each other and who can suppress their ego and self-interest so as to act together toward their common goals.