“Banning unsigned online comments undermines the media’s role as a forum for debate.” — Bill Reader.
Over at Wired Journalist’s someone asked what to put online first and what to hold for print. He mentioned that staffers were worried about the competition getting ahold of their scoops. Here is my response:
Online everyone is a competitor and no one is a competitor. As in, what you view as your competition has radically shifted. A kid on your block can now be your competition. In the same token, however, that kid can collaborate with you.
The Web is about being social and forming webs of connections. In that sense, just as anyone can be your competitor, anyone can also help you. If you embrace that collaborative spirit, you’ll find that the Web offers many more opportunities for collaboration than it does for competition.
The only thing I’d hold for print are longer, more enterprise stories. Longer-form content doesn’t do that well online anyway. Otherwise, I’d let everything go first online. It is the new first draft of history.
Every Web site that allows users to write comments should also have a mechanism to allow users to subscribe to comments.
Subscribing to comment is a way of notifying a user when new comments are left, typically via e-mail. This simple feature is a great way to foster deeper conversations and increase page views. It’s a must-have feature for any Web site.
Remember the other day when I asked if your proprietary CMS was better than open source? WordPress has an easy-to-install plugin that allows users to subscribe to comments. Does your CMS?
You allow comments because you want to build a community. This simple feature will greatly enhance your ability to create a community. Get your Web developers on this ASAP, and if your CMS can’t handle it, get one that can — for free.
We need your help naming the Online Ethics Seal.
The Online Ethics Seal has been the tentative name. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the finalized name. In fact, many of you have said don’t like the connotation that a “seal” brings.
Maybe this is more of a code of ethics. Or, maybe it’s more of principles to aspire to. Or maybe it’s an ethics policy.
This is what the name we come up with must convey:
- The seals that are produced encompass a wide array of online products. We make no distinctions between The New York Times, a Typepad blog or a new media Web startup.
- This whole process is voluntary. We are not certifying anything. We are simply coming up with an open-source, free system to help Web sites formulate ethics policies. This is also a system to help users quickly identify the ethics that a Web site has.
- This process is all about transparency. We want to make it easier for our users to understand what we do. This isn’t about ranking sites, casting judgement or anything like that. It’s just about being open about what we do.
- This is not a blogger certification process. Yes, bloggers can adopt the seals/codes/whatever but this process is not aimed at them solely. Nor does this process hope to reign in blogger. Rather, this is aimed at anyone producing non-fiction content on the Web. It’s a service that benefits both content producers and consumers.
- This benefits participating organizations too. Most established print news organizations have an ethics policy. Those policies, however, can be time consuming and difficult to produce. We want to make it easy for online startups to be able to customize a policy for themselves.
Remember, Creative Commons is our inspiration. So, help us come up with a good name for this project!
You don’t need a fancy new CMS, a new editor in chief, new business model or prayer to start innovating today.
This month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Will Sullivan over at Journerdism, asks a very pragmatic question:
What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?
Pragmatic questions need pragmatic answers.
Stop wasting money on software and IT you don’t need:
Times are tight, right? Then why does every one of your employees have a copy of the full Microsoft Office Suite? A lot of those people probably hardly ever touch it, and those that do use the software could probably get away with a much cheaper software solution.
Don’t waste money on IT spending that you don’t need to spend, especially on software that makes you less productive. Most of your employees could do everything they need to from Google Docs. Google Docs is either free or cheap ($50 a seat for the premium version per year), and it allows for powerful collaboration.
News organizations are now trying to cater to different audiences — print, Web and mobile. It’s hard to properly disseminate content to those different streams without good collaboration.
Google Docs has fantastic collaboration built in. It could save a lot of time spent sending e-mails back and forth, and even — gasp — time spent in e-mail. Teams can share documents for specific projects.
I use Google Docs for everything I do on BeatBlogging.Org. I love how no matter what computer I’m on, I can have access to all my documents. I love how easy it is to share documents with people. I love the simplicity.
When I worked at Stars and Stripes, I had a full copy of Microsoft Office. There is nothing that I ever did there that I couldn’t do with Google Docs. In fact, I still used Google Docs when I wanted to share documents with other employees.
Yes, some of your employees probably need Office because it does have features that Google Docs doesn’t have, but the vast majority of your employees don’t need it. Regardless, Google Docs will help with work flow.
Create a culture of learning, everyday:
This isn’t as far out as it sounds. Sign up for Lynda.com and similar sites. Purchase books on HTML, CSS, Flash and other tools. Encourage your employees to subscribe to RSS feeds of sites like This Week in Django.
Have your employees sign up for free blogging accounts at WordPress.com or a similar site. Have them sign up for Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. The only way to understand social networking is to get out there and do it.
Allocate a few hours each week when employees are expected to spend time learning new skills and tools. Encourage your employees to spend their down time at work learning. Allow your employees to take courses while they are at home.
Let’s make it easy for our employees to get wired, and let’s get everyone on Wired Journalists.
Have seminars and classes every week:
This again, isn’t that crazy of an idea. These seminars and classes can be led by employees. Many newsroom already host weekly classes where blogging, Twitter, HTML, social networking, video, etc are discussed.
But if you don’t have qualified employees in some of these areas, bring in outside people. The last thing you need is for your employees to learn the wrong ideas and techniques or get discouraged when their teachers doesn’t really know what they are talking about.
We can’t honestly expect all of our employees to be up-to-date on the latest trends if we don’t even talk about what those trends are and how we can use the newest technology to produce better journalism. Remember, some trends aren’t worth our time. They have to help us produce better journalism and connect better with our readers.
I’d also have every one of your beat reporters and editors reading BeatBlogging.Org for great ideas on how to incorporate social media.
Work flow says a lot about your organization:
Organizations with modern work flows are often more innovative. Now, maybe you can’t change your whole newsroom work flow overnight, but you can at least change how your team works. Maybe just your team adopts Google Docs to share ideas, but it will still make your team more efficient and allow you to produce better results.
I’d strongly consider project management software like Basecamp. Basecamp combined with Google Docs can help transform a newsroom into a modern, efficient organization. Many Web teams especially don’t have software to help manage projects and work flow.
Basecamp is the kind of modern IT spending that makes sense. Why newsrooms still blow money on Office or even Exchange e-mail makes no sense to me. Microsoft programs are terrible for collaboration, and they’re expensive.
I think any small news organization would be crazy to spend money on Outlook/Exchange. A bigger organization can spread the cost around to more employees, but a smaller organization has to pay a lot of money for software, servers and people to maintain both.
And Outlook/Exchange that doesn’t really allow employees to be efficient because of its 20th-century mindset. Google Apps and GMAIL is a great solution for many newsrooms (if you’re a small paper like a weekly, you’d be crazy to use anything else).
E-mail is not a project management tool:
How many of your news organizations send out e-mails about mandatory meetings? How many of your organizations also send out reminders about said meetings? Now how many of your organizations how a calendar system like Outlook?
Well, why don’t your news organizations just place these mandatory meetings on your calendar? People need to stop living out of their inboxes. Your inbox is not where you should go to find out what to do each day.
That’s what your calendar is for. Many companies all over the world have created a culture in which e-mail is the main productivity tool. But using e-mail for anything more than it is intended for makes everyone less productive.
There really is no excuse for employees to be CCed and BCCed on every little e-mail. Frankly, it’s embarrassing when many employees get hundreds of e-mails a day. A lot of those e-mails should be IMs or on another, more relevant communication platform.
Outlook/Google Calendar, Google Docs, Wikis, Basecamp, etc will all make your news organization more efficient. We all have less resources today. Let’s put those resources to better use.
Ad revenue will continue to dry up. Many traditional print advertisers (car dealers, real estate agents, etc) are facing tough times and some are going out of business. This economic crisis will claim many people’s jobs and shrink ad budgets around the country.
It will further squeeze already squeezed newspapers. Even CPMs are down. Many newspapers have been slow to embrace video ads, which pay much better. Newspapers also have not been able to discover newer revenue streams.
It’s well known that many older newspaper subscribers do not frequent newspaper Web sites, and this is one major argument against cutting back on the number of days that newspapers publish. Many of these core newspaper readers still read and enjoy newspapers every day. Newspapers don’t want to alienate some of their most loyal readers.
The problem is that newspapers have to move forward into a Web world. Resources are still skewed wildly in favor of print at most newspapers. With little audience overlap between print and online products, newspapers have little synergy and are unable to produce products that compliment each other.
Imagine how much more sense it would make to have The Washington Post, for example, to publish daily online and produce a once-a-week print publication that focuses on analysis, enterprise stories and the big picture. It would be the Yin and the Yang. It would be synergy city.
Many newspapers may never see this reality. Ad revenues will continue to plunge, newspaper managers will continue to cater to print subscribers who are slowly dying off and leaving for richer online experiences and this will be the end for many dailies.
But maybe this could be the event that brings synergy to print and the Web. There is still a future for print — albeit a much different future than daily newspapers are used to. I receive The Economist, National Geographic and the Sunday Washington Post (it would be much stronger if it were the only Post edition each week). A lot of younger people do like print publications, but we don’t like daily publications.
They make little sense. I don’t have time each day, or the will, to read a daily print product. Daily print products also clog up my apartment and are bad for the environment. But giving up on print would be a mistake too.
Could the death of daily newspapers be the catalyst that brings in older readers to Web journalism?
If older readers came onto the Web en masse, newspapers would no longer have to cater to two distinct audiences. Finally, newspapers could produce a print product that made sense in a Web-first world. I fear this reality, however, can only happen if many older readers are forced to start reading online news because many newspapers fail.
And while I will lament and mourn the loss of newspapers around the world, I believe this is a better future. The downfall of newspapers could lead to better journalism. So many news organizations are held back by the past, by bureaucratic inertia, by institutional memory.
Imagine a future in which the only thing holding back news organizations was our imaginations. This economic crisis could not come at a worst time for newspapers, and, frankly, no one really knows how bad it is going to get. I do know, however, know that in good times and bad, people want to be informed.
Maybe, just maybe, this crisis will force us to reinvent journalism. Maybe it will spark an unprecedented wave of innovation as we face the realities of a new world for journalism.
Could it be the turn of the tide?
At ONA 08 and a week later at Poynter Seminar on ethics, I talked about my online ethics seal idea.
The idea is very simple — to form a series of ethics seals that Web sites, blogs and news organizations could embed on their Web sites. I want these seals to be in the same vein as the Creative Commons.
Right now there are five seal categories:
- Objectivity/advocacy/opinion journalism or opinion
- Copy editing/fact checking (does a second person fact check?)
- Conflicts of Interests
The seals are developed by the community:
- The seals are open source — The community gets to decide which level of the seals means. This also means that people are free to change the language of a seal as long as they open source their new seal.
- That means the seals will evolve — Over time, we can update the ethics seals to reflect the current state of the Web. There will be version 1.0, 2.0, etch of each seal.
- The community is more than just blogs — Any online ethics seal can’t succeed if it hopes to only serve blogs (or “govern” them). Rather a good seal should be applicable to traditional media sources and new media sources. It should be a common ground, because on the Web traditional and new media lines are blurred.
- The seals are just beginning — Right now I have laid out five seal categories. Maybe we need more categories. Maybe we need less. Together, we’ll figure out the core areas to develop seals around.
- Transparency — This is the name of the game. What these seals are saying is this is how you and your news organizations/blogs go about reporting/posting. It’s not about casting judgement. Just about transparency. So what if your blog publishes rumors? What I’m saying is just be honest with your users.
- Advertising — Advertisers consider blogs even less valuable than social networks. Why? Stigma. Many people feel that bloggers have no ethics. That’s not true. Many bloggers do, but they aren’t clear on what their ethics are. Many bloggers and online publications want ethics policies, but where do they start? We’ll make selecting an ethics policy as easy as selecting a Creative Commons copyright policy.
- Ease of use — Why develop your own ethics seal and policy, if you could adopt an open source policy that is widely used and understood by users? Developing a custom ethics policy can take a lot of time. Instead, you can mix and match different seal categories to form your own policy in a matter of minutes. Want customization? The seals are open source. Customize our seals and wording. Just make sure to post what you have changed.
- Our users will thank us — Even the most staid of traditional media sources make it tough to know how they report (almost every news organization has an copyright policy on every page, but an ethics policy is no where to be found). They are not transparent about the reporting process, but our readers deserve better. Imagine if my blog and The New York Times had the same open source ethics policy? It’s possible. This would ultimately be really great for users, because users would be able to easily understand how each site reports because our ethics policies are open source, widely used and easy to identify.
- Let’s be transparent — Why are copyright policies so widespread and yet ethics policies are so clandestine? What is ultimately more important to our readers? How we report and blog or how they can use our content? If you think you have better ethics than “those bloggers,” prove it. if your blog practices journalism, prove it. This is about being honest about who we are.
- This will help users find relevant content — Part of the ethics seal is a central Web site and database that lists participating Web sites and blogs by seal type, content type and geographic location. If I want to look up a local sports Web site in my area, with a certain ethics seal, I can do so. Maybe I’m looking for technology rumor blogs. By utilizing the same open source seals, people will be able to find similar content. If you don’t want your national security news to contain anonymous sources, you can select from news outlets and blogs that do not use anonymous sources.
- It comes with cool icons — Obviously entire ethics polices cannot be embedded in the footer of Web sites, but cool, memorable icons can be. Each seal category will have its own icon. Each “level” will have its own color. The five seals will be placed in a row in a footers on every page of a Web site to help people quickly comprehend what kind of ethics policy that Web site has. Each seal will link back to a page on our Web site that lists the full ethics for that given seal.
- No legalese, please — Each seal will be written in plain English. Ethics seals are non-binding. There is no reason for them to read like the back of a credit card offer. So, they won’t. We’ll make them easy for anyone to understand.
- Post suggestions — Post your thoughts in the comments section of this post or on your blog.
- Join the Wiki — We have an online ethics wiki. Join the Wiki and help shape the future of this project.
- Spread the word — Link people up to this post. Tell them about the seal. Tell people about how together we’re going to usher in a new era of reporting transparency on the Web. It doesn’t matter anymore on the Web if someone works for a newspaper or a blog. What ultimately matters is how we go about reporting and creating content.
I was just at Cleveland.com, and I was looking at all the new features the site has launched recently.
Certainly, the new features are upgrades over what used to be there. The new design is a step forward. The site, however, is a hodgepodge in many ways.
The search engine is worthless and rarely returns relevant results. The UI still needs a lot of work. It’s hard for me to quickly find the content I want.
And the homepage design suffers from being overly crowded. It’s a prime example of the Wall of News. Plus, the homepage doesn’t have a clear graphical focus or main story.
I couldn’t help but think that if Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer could start from scratch they would do things differently. There is no way that Cleveland.com is the site they ultimately want. But it’s the site they have because of years of legacy code and legacy decisions.
I hate to see the past holding back news organizations on the Web. The Web demands agile development and quick decision making. I assure you that Web-only news organizations will not fall into the same trappings as traditional news organizations.
The pace of innovation on the Web from most news organizations feels very print like. It’s OK to tweak a print design every 5-10 years, but a Web site needs continual R&D. Not only do Web sites require new features, but they also require that those new features fit into existing designs and frameworks (Cleveland.com feels so broken and disjointed at times).
The Las Vegas Sun blew things up and went from being a zero to a hero in a matter of months. You can say all you want about how they have a unique JOA or about how they aren’t making money right now off their Web site. That doesn’t matter.
There is nothing stopping Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer and their Advance Publications overlords from making Cleveland.com into a very good site.
Nothing, except bureaucratic inertia. Nothing, except being beholden to yesterday’s decisions. Nothing, except old media think.
And, to be honest, I do not have faith that either Cleveland.com or Advance have the right Web talent and minds in place to turn things around. Maybe most news organizations can’t do everything that the Sun is doing, but every organization could adopt their aggressive Web mindset. Every news organization could embrace agile development.
It is the mindset of The Las Vegas Sun that really stands out. It is mindset that is killing this industry. There is too much can’t do attitude and not enough can do.
One can’t help but wonder if all the legacy editors who cut their teeth in print simply do not understand the pace of the Web. Print was a monopoly. It never demanded innovation — agile or not.
Innovation can start from the bottom, but mindset starts from the top. When a high school Web site is better than most “professional” news Web sites, you know the problem is mental, not financial or technical. If it seems like I’m rambling, it’s because this is getting depressing.
How many news organizations can honestly say that the Web products they have right now are the products they would want to make if they could start over? If the answer is no, why not start over?
What do you have to lose?
I have some lessons from ONA 08 over at BeatBlogging.Org (version 2.0 nonetheless), and I wanted to highlight the supply and demand part of the post:
- This is an issue facing journalism on the Web and not just beat bloggers. Right now, there is simply more supply of written content than there is of demand for it from advertisers. This means low CPMs for written content. It also means that text-only beat bloggers need to get a lot of page views to make a decent amount of revenue.
- On the other hand, there isn’t enough supply of video content on the Web to meet advertisers demands. Advertisers love video ads and pre-roll. They want to stick it on your content, but are having trouble finding enough content.
- I’m not suggesting that everyone jump to doing video, but diversifying content can help boost revenue. This could be a once-a-week podcast or vodcast with a few ads in it. It could mean shooting some video for your beat blog. But realize that video content can get a much higher ad rate than printed content can.
News organizations need to diversify their content. This means more audio, more video, more multimedia and — yes — less written content. Now, none of this matters if our multimedia content has terrible SEO and exist within ghettos.
CNN.com understands how to get people to watch lots of video. CNN.com automatically plays a new, related clip after a clip is finished. Users can build custom playlists and watch hours of video — and ads.
Most news organizations, however, allow video and other multimedia content to exist within arbitrary ghettos where that content is not connected to similar content. When a clip ends, the content stops. Related content is not linked together.
And the biggest crime of all: A lot of multimedia content on news Web sites is not properly indexed and searchable. That my friends is one of the worst ideas ever. Search is the key to content distribution.
News organizations need to address this supply and demand issue. Trust me, redundant, non-local news is not in demand. And it’s probably not that in demand by users either.
The real question is why he stuck around so long.
If fact, I don’t understand why any star print columnist or beat reporter doesn’t just start his or her own Web site. The Dallas Cowboys Blog for The Dallas Morning news can get hundreds of thousands of page views in one day. And that’s without a really good beat blog that really harnesses the power of the Web and social networking.
Imagine the possibilities. More on that in a minute.
Mariotti threw a few bombs on his way out, including about how he believes that newspapers are dying and how the future is on the Web. He is absolutely correct, however.
First, let’s look at Mariotti’s claim that newspapers are dying. Vin Crosbie believes more than half of today’s 1,439 daily newspapers in the U.S. won’t exist by the end of the next decade. In fact, the Sun-Times is a prime candidate to not be around much longer.
The Sun-Times Media Group was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. That doesn’t happen for being too good. It happens when a stock falls below the minimum trading value.
Despite what many curmudgeons would like to believe and like to have you believe, newspapers are not in a cyclical down period. Many are about to be down for the count.
For a sports columnist like Mariotti, there is little incentive to stay in print. He can make more money in other mediums that have less turmoil.
Many of the best sports writers like Rick Reilly are being bought up by ESPN (for $3 million a year), Yahoo!, CBS Sportsline and other Web sites. Before the Web, print — especially newspapers– was just about the only place for a star columnist to work.
Because of the monopolies that newspapers had, columnists were at the mercy of newspapers. That has flipped with the Web. Now anyone can be their own publisher and become successful like Michael Arrington of TechCrunch.
I’m sure Mariotti was well paid by newspaper standards, but those standards aren’t very high (and just a fraction of Reilly’s new salary). Frankly, the standards of most newspaper Web sites aren’t very high either, which is one major reason why Mariotti left the Sun-Times:
To showcase your work … you need a stellar Web site and if a newspaper doesn’t have that, you can’t be stuck in the 20th century with your old newspaper.
If I were Mariotti, I’d start my own Web site and post my work there. Yes, he could go work for ESPN full time like many of his former print colleagues have, but then you are at the mercy of ESPN, which is notorious for being overbearing and controlling. Or he could join an online-only sports site.
But why bother? If I were Mariotti, I’d focus on building my own brand with my own Web site and social networking presence. With the right technical help, he could have a kick-ass WordPress installation, where he can publish his latest thoughts about whatever, whenever. He could also embed video clips, build interactive features, have a weekly podcast, interact with users and do all sorts of things that he couldn’t do at the Sun-Times.
Plus, his Web presence would be very 21st century, unlike the Sun-Times. If you’re a columnist, imagine a site that has all of your posts tagged, so that users can quickly and easily discover content. One of the most frustrating aspects of newspaper Web sites is the disarray that is their archives.
And most newspaper Web sites are unsearchable. So many page views are lost because of these technical deficiencies that a basic, free WordPress install doesn’t have.
I’d also start a Twitter account and begin building a fan base with strong user interaction. I would, of course, interact with users on my beat blog as well. Then I’d look into other social networking opportunities.
This is what Mariotti and any sports writer needs to get started: a laptop with a Web cam for video columns, a smart phone, a beat blog (WordPress is a great option), Google Apps for mail and word processing, a Twitter account and Viddler/YouTube and Seesmic accounts to put that Web cam to use.
He probably already has a laptop and smart phone. The Web technology I listed is all free. The only things that will cost money are the domain name (about $10 a year), hosting (might only be hundreds a year) and probably some technical and consulting help to set this all up.
Mariotti, if you’re reading this, start a beat blog. Don’t wait.
We have already seen a lot of top sports writing talent leave for ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, CBS Sportsline and others in the past year. I think the exodus of sports writing talent from traditional print publications is just beginning, because not only can big-name sports writers leave for online publications, but they can also now easily and cheaply start their own Web sites.