Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Times-Select RIP

File it under We-Told-You-So: Management at the NYT is preparing to shut down Times-Select, the company's $50-a-year paywall experiment. I don't feel like dancing on its grave, because the idea of paying for certain types of content shouldn't be lost, and Times-Select (in concept, anyway) came close to being that kind of product. But there's a message in this headline that's going to cause a lot of consternation around newspaper boardrooms.

The short history of most newspaper websites looks a lot like this: Excitement (1995-99); Disillusionment (1999); The Empire Strikes Back (2000-03); Blogs, Video, Mass Confusion and Slow Progress (2004-07). Next up: Panic and Fundamental Reconfiguration (2008-11). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

One of the primary media-company theories in the post-Disillusionment period was that early Web business plans were distorted by a sort of hippie-ish Web-culture altruism in which people came to expect that all content should be free. Many executives came to believe that their future on the Web would take place behind some kind of paywall, and that consumers would be conditioned to this hard reality by industry control. This was a dearly held belief founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of online media that nevertheless jibed smoothly with widespread attitudes within the media management class.

In many cases, the first step toward that goal was "heavy" registration, and newspaper sites across the country drank the Kool Aid in the first years of this decade. Combine that "register or go away" attitude with the average circulation director's outright hostility toward the Web edition and you'll understand the zeitgeist of The Empire Strikes Back period. Companies stopped treating their sites as charity cases and started demanding profits -- or at least the reasonable expectation of profits in the very near future.

To executives who dreamed of online subscription fees and the comfortable familiarity of a one-to-many distribution model, Times-Select was not only a shining city on a hill but a well-timed counter-argument to the read-write-Web voices of 2004-2005. The NYT's new plan to wall-off its most popular columnists came at the same moment that heretics within the industry were arguing (with much inconvenient evidence in their favor) for a very different (Web 2.0) type of future for newspaper sites.

Times-Select had a few things going for it, just as The WSJ's paywall had a logic that surpassed the market limits on generic paid-content news. But those attributes weren't applicable to metro newspapers. Charge for your online coverage of Anytown, USA, and three things will happen: 1. Traffic at the local TV station sites will spike; 2. Your smaller print-pub competition will get a boost for their Web sites; and 3. You'll encourage a whole new class of Web-only news operations to move into the vacuum you've created. It's simple economic logic, and yet the industry's desire for a paid-content future remained so overwhelmingly strong that Times-Select stood for two years as a symbol for the Big Media Alternative to a small media future.

Let's hope that the demise of the Times-Select experiment puts to rest a lot of institutional biases operating as poorly conceived theories about the nature of online media. This is a moment when legacy-media companies need to move rapidly, boldly and flexibly toward relevant futures, and every iota of time and energy spent debating the relevancy of a paid-content business model for general news coverage is a movement in the wrong direction.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


I spent the weekend at a gathering of what might best be described as the post-mass-media tribe in Black Mountain, N.C.
  • They don't read newspapers, and why should they? Newspapers scorn them to begin with.
  • They don't watch much TV, either.
  • Big music labels piss them off. Small labels that care about music turn them on.
  • They don't like one kind of music: they love all sorts of music.
  • They would rather entertain themselves than be entertained.
  • Some of these people just recently opted out of mainstream culture. Others stopped caring what you think about them 40 years ago. And some of them are second- and third-generation products of the counter culture.
In other words, they're not a counter-culture. They are a culture.

This isn't youthful rebellion. It isn't a bunch of people sitting around smoking pot on Daddy's dime. These are competent, intelligent, community-oriented people with a variety of interests and skills. They care about the environment, justice, free-expression, equal opportunity and liberty. They put their money -- and their muscles --on their values.

And I have this powerful sense that these are the people who are about to power the next wave of cultural creativity in America. Old values, new threats and emerging technologies are morphing into a Green Revolution that is both global and intensely local, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and responsibility.

Thow-away media mean nothing to these people. They don't "do" shoddy.

Got anything for them?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


I've developed a new schtick for explaining the concept of news judgment to civilians: A newspaper is a big averaging machine, I tell them.

Here's how it works: When reporters and editors get new information, they estimate its newspaper value based on their subjective mental picture of the average audience they're trying to satisfy. If they're thinking very clearly, they'll also abstract the situation out to ask "If something similar took place with a different group or in a different place, how would I respond?" Then they'll execute the coverage in a way that is averaged out to deny material to as many predictable critics as possible.

The purpose of all this averaging is to generate a product that alienates the fewest people while generally presenting information of value to the broadest possible audience. If that's your business plan -- and for metro dailies, it is -- then strong emotions (unless predictably held by a near consensus of the population) are a bad outcome. Because for all the talk about the liberal media, a metro newspaper is much more like the Israeli parliament (a loosely cobbled-together group of competing constituencies, many of which are in direct disagreement on certain points) than an ideological monoculture.

The goal of such a product is maintaining that coalition, not doing any one thing particularly well. In fact, should your newspaper suddenly start doing a great job of covering sports, it's very likely that someone, somewhere, will question why so many resources are being put toward college football while so little is being devoted to the 2008 presidential election. And so on.

Which brings us to a key question about the future of metro dailies: If the spirit of the new media is niche and the concept of your existing product is general, how do you get there from here?

Well, here's one answer: Stop making papers with the goal of people not hating them and start making papers for people to love.

And there's only one way to do that: Make more than one newspaper. Let people choose which one they want to read. And then give them reasons to love that choice.

How many should you make? On what should each paper be based? What resources should be shared? How would you administer such an operation? Good questions, all.

But not show-stoppers.

Any news organization that would attempt such a transition would (or, more accurately, should) know its individual markets better than I would be able to imagine in the generic sense, so let's keep this at the macro level. The "take-away," then, is this easy-to-remember aphorism: In a niche world, the place to be is where people are grooving.

Not where you want the people to go, not where it's easiest for you to put them. You go where they want to be and make products that improve their lives, make them happy, fulfill their needs. So if that means you have one paper that serves the interests of conservatives and another that serves the interests of everybody else, OK.

I used to hate this idea, but now I simply accept it. Resisting it doesn't serve anyone, including "the public," and it certainly isn't a great way to build an enduring business. My worry in 2005 was that without a lingua franca (i.e., a mainstream media identity that persisted in this great averaging I mentioned above), American society would simply Balkanize. My epiphany in 2007 is that this has, in fact, already happened -- and might actually turn out to be a good thing.

In 2005 I thought it was a good thing that the media created norms that went beyond partisan control. In 2007, I don't care so much about that. In fact, I'm not sure that I like anybody having that kind of power. Period.

So why not let go of these outdated notions and focus instead on communicating our altruistic community-service values by putting love at the center of our business model? It's certainly a better starting point than our current position, which is everywhere... and nowhere.

Monday, February 05, 2007

SHOOT BETTER VIDEO: 33 tips from Ellen Seidler

One of the perks of finishing up one assignment (helping modernize our paper's website) and heading on to the next one (back to the newsroom as a combo print/online features reporter) is that I'm finding cool stuff as I pack up my office. Today's gem: Notes from a fantastic class given last March at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism during my week as a 2006 Western Knight Center fellow.

A lot of us in print journalism are moving toward online video storytelling these days, but you don't have to be a pro-jo to get value out of these practical rules. The ideas here belong to Ellen Seidler, but the paraphrasing -- poor as it may be -- is mine.
  1. Discuss your expectations with the team first. Plan your shoot.
  2. When you're shooting on new DV tape, roll 30 seconds of nothing to get past the typically imperfect tape head.
  3. Check your audio before you need it. Are your levels set accurately?
  4. Shoot selectively. Be disciplined with start/stop/record. It will make you a better shooter.
  5. Shut up when you shoot. Audio makes video three-dimensional and you'll need that ambient sound... so don't yack over it.
  6. Hold all your shots at least 10-15 seconds. You can always make a 10-second shot into a two-second shot.
  7. Give yourself extra room in editing action shots.
  8. Avoid excess zooms or pans. Use them sparingly, if at all, and only to reveal or emphasize.
  9. Always begin or end a zoom or pan on a static shot. A zoom should begin with 15 seconds of wide shot, end with 15 seconds of tight shot. This gives you flexibility in editing.
  10. Shoot in sequences: Wide shot; details; angles.
  11. Always use a tripod when shooting a static subject.
  12. Always use a tripod on a sit-down interview.
  13. The wider the angle, the less shake in the shot.
  14. Don't be shy. Get up-close and personal with your subject.
  15. Mix your shots by this ratio: one quarter wide, one quarter medium; half close-up.
  16. Close-up translates a lot better on the Web.
  17. In composing shots, set up a frame and let things happen within it.
  18. For sit-down interviews: Shoot head and shoulders.
  19. Remember the Rule of Thirds. If you divide your screen into vertical thirds, know that the viewer's eye wants to rest on the upper third of the screen.
  20. If your subject in a sit-down is looking into the camera, center the shot.
  21. If the subject is looking at the reporter, then eye-level composition is good. Frame the shot with "nose room" in the direction the subject is looking. Don't center the subject in this composition.
  22. Tell the subject: "Don't look at the camera. Look at the reporter."
  23. Don't make eye contact with the subject.
  24. If you're doing multiple interviews, keep the shots similar.
  25. Get your set-up and "two-shots" after the interview. Move the camera back, but stay on an imaginary line (and remember: once you choose a side, stick to it). Now put the reporter in the shot and have the reporter talk while you run tape of the two of them together. Then get a reverse shot over the subject's shoulder of the reporter listening. Then get a close-up of the reporter listening. You'll use these options during editing.
  26. To really be professional, record 30 seconds of silence to get "room tone."
  27. To get tight depth of field, stretch out your zoom.
  28. Change your angle and perspective. Don't treat the camera like your eyes.
  29. If you're shooting something boring like a building, get people in the shot.
  30. Use a tripod for steady shots. If a tripod isn't available, get close and go wide.
  31. Anticipate action.
  32. Be actively involved in the context of what's going on.
  33. Take care in "dressing the mic" when using a lavaliere set-up. Hide the wire in the subject's lapels, under jackets, etc. "Flip the clip" as needed. Set the mic up in line with the subject's mouth, but not too close to the throat.
A couple other useful tips from my various notes and scribbles:
  • Have a labeling system and be sure to label all your tapes. It's easy to skip this (something I know from experience), but don't. Pretty soon you'll have a lot of identical tapes, and you be glad you took a few seconds in the field to get organized.
  • Want to override your auto-focus? This is particularly useful if you're planning a zoom-out. Focus in advance on the subject farthest away and then pull back to the shot you want.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


The big issue in newspapering these days isn't quality or ethics but preservation: preservation of jobs, status, and the printed product, but also to some extent the preservation of our own cultural myths. The aloof-but-wise senior editor. The tough-but-fair city editor. All manner of reporter stereotypes. We desire not only to preserve newspaper journalism in the digital age, but to do so with our fondest professional myths intact.

Which might be why today's Romanesko e-mail gave top billing to this column by Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times: "Local news can matter once more." Westneat states this idea as if he just discovered it, but if you've been in the business at any time within the past decade you've heard his sentiments repeatedly: Back to basics. Back to the street. Shoe leather. Good old-fashioned reporting. Non-institutional. Chicken dinners. Local. Local local local...

What's annoying about this prescription -- preached by every newspaper consultant I've encountered during my 16 years in the business -- is that it's bird-bath shallow. I suspect that professional newspaper journalists so readily accept it as true because it matches our template for what we want the truth to be, and we embrace it with an "old verities" passion that substitutes ingrained belief for insightful analysis. We believe it because it comforts us.

But back to Westneat, reflecting on his salad days as a rookie reporter for a now-dead small paper and the lessons we could learn from days gone by:
It covered community fairs. Printed death notices and high-school box scores and the police blotter. Watchdogged local government. Wrote up everything hometown, from heroes to rezones.

That kind of small-town newspapering is considered boring today. Unhip. Supposedly we're all too globalized or tuned into Web video clips to want such provincial news.

My own view is the opposite. I think intensely local, professionally gathered news is due for a comeback. It's the one thing you can't get anywhere else.
There are a couple of things to fisk in these three paragraphs:

1. Unhip? That's a straw man. Most executives in the metro newspaper business has been clamoring for a community-newspaper-style solution to their circulation woes since I entered the trade back in the late 1980s. It's probably why I got hired as a metro editor in the first place -- my lack of metro orthodoxy was actually considered a selling point by my new bosses. And walk into any mid-metro newsroom in America today and you'll find at least one editor armed with studies and reports who thinks that the way we'll survive in the 21st century is to "do what we do best: local news." Westneat and others like him are fighting a non-existent opponent. They're not the rebel alliance anymore: They're the Empire.

2. "Intensely local, professionally gathered news is ... the one thing you can't get anywhere else." Emphasis, please on the word "professional," because what Westneat and the hyperlocal newsroom evangelists really want to do is draw a public distinction between the professionals and the amateurs. In Newspaper World, news gathered by professionals -- and, more importantly, edited by professionals -- is just inherently better, with no supporting arguments necessary. Only when one adds the word "professional" can one make the statement that intensely local news cannot be gotten anywhere else. Because these days you can get intensely local and intensely personal news all over the place. For free.

So let's clarify these contrarian points, and let's keep repeating them until the decision-makers start to grasp them:

1. Reporting local news isn't what newspapers do best. In fact, the best medium for reporting local news is the Web (more on this later). What newspapers do best (when they choose to do it) is to condense large amounts of information into a small amount of newsprint space and reader time. From a user's perspective, a newspaper is the most efficient medium for communicating lots of information in one burst. That's a fantastic selling point for the newspaper industry, but I've never heard this concept discussed by newspaper consultants. Ever.

2. Metro newspapers aren't built to provide hyperlocal news coverage. The idea of the American metro newspaper is a 20th century phenomenon that capitalized on the need for one product that combined local, state, national and international news into one package. The central principle of the metro paper is that its news judgment emphasizes stories that have the widest appeal across multiple communities within a defined readership area, thereby capturing a fantastic economy of scale that delivered maximum eyeballs at minimal cost. So when a metro paper starts emphasizing community-level news, it's actually reversing that economy of scale: less interest at a higher cost per reader. Various metros have attempted to address this equation via various zoned-edition plans, but none of them reverse the basic math. They're spending more to get less.

3. Local news is expensive. Whether you do it at the metro level or the weekly level, community news is more expensive to produce than state or national news. To wit: If I have a one-person bureau covering my state legislature, that one reporter will provide stories with interest that crosses all my local coverage areas. Hence, one Statehouse reporter = news that's potentially relevant to all of my 250,000 readers. But a story about a Rotary Club breakfast in Mount Pleasant is of zero interest to my readers at Folly Beach, and to be blunt about it, of limited interest to Mount Pleasant residents who aren't members of the Rotary Club. So one reporter there = news of relevance to maybe a few hundred people in a community of 62,000, within a metro readership of 250,000 That's a lousy economy of scale.

If you don't "zone" the pages, then at least 99 percent of the people who get your Rotary breakfast story are going to skip over it; if you do zone it, then you're getting a lower advertising rate on the same investment of staff time. Either way, this is hardly a recipe for saving your newspaper.

5. Local-local news is a Web strength, not a print strength. In the online world, where bandwidth might as well be infinite, what I publish about Folly Beach doesn't come at the expense of Mount Pleasant coverage. In the print world, where newshole (newshole = the amount of space available for news after the ads are sold and arranged) is an extremely limited commodity, news judgment becomes a zero-sum game.

So when consultants say that "local news is what newspapers do best," what they're really saying is that we're the only traditional media with relatively large reporting and editing staffs already in place. Radio and TV stations typically field tiny news staffs, and online competitors are usually bootstrap operations. This is why smart news people are pushing their hyper-local efforts out onto the Web, where I can publish both my Rotary Club story from Mount Pleasant and my surf tournament story from Folly Beach at no additional cost, or without one choice precluding the other.

There's an additional issue here, which any metro city editor will tell you: If you emphasize local news on your front pages, readers will create impressions about which communities are most important in the eyes of the editors. Perceived slights in the presentation of local news become lingering resentments, and will actually alienate readers in areas that feel underserved or negatively portrayed. Count on it.

4. The traditional "professional" model may not be the best way to approach hyper-local news. Traditional newspaper journalism features a layered editing process and an inferred sense of news judgment that reflects the newspapers' cultural sense of what's important and appropriate. In Newspaper World, this professional care and filtering is your assurance of quality information and good taste, a virtual paper band around the news that proclaims it "Sanitized for Your Protection."

But newspaper-speak and the normative-values of a for-profit enterprise don't necessarily meet the needs, tastes or interests or modern readers. Yes, accuracy matters, but to suggest that accuracy as we define it is the only value that readers care about is to miss the point entirely. This is one of the lessons the industry should have learned from its minority readership studies, but didn't: Who gets to speak and what they get to say is an extremely important issue to some readers. By playing to the averaged-out middle, we are leaving out all kinds of voices. Our message to them, intentional or otherwise? "You don't count."

Newspaper editors discuss these issues in the abstract as policies and precedents, typically with lots of expensive input from attorneys, producing ventures that are cautious and tepid. Meanwhile, a new class of "amateurs" is filling the vacuum, creating a form of "news" so philosophically distinct from traditional news judgment that it requires a new label: Placeblogging. One of the heroes of this movement is H2Otown creator and founder Lisa Williams. Here's how she describes the difference:
Placeblogs are sometimes called “hyperlocal sites” because some of them focus on news events and items that cover a particular neighborhood in great detail — and in particular, places that might be too physically small or sparsely populated to attract much traditional media coverage. Because of this, many people have associated them with the term “citizen journalism,” or journalism done by non-journalists.

Placeblogs, however, are about something broader than news alone. They’re about the lived experience of a place. That experience may be news, or it may simply be about that part of our lives that isn’t news but creates the texture of our daily lives: our commute, where we eat, conversations with our neighbors, the irritations and delights of living in a particular place among particular people. However, when news happens in a community, placeblogs often cover those events in unique and nontraditional ways…

That's a kind of intimate informality that newspapers will never be able to match, and we would be silly to try. But when we look at hyper-local as a Web function, not a print one, then all sorts of things become possible -- including profit. A multi-layered editing process, with reporter separated from executive editor by no fewer than three or four intervening layers of editors (not to mention the enormous overhead of a legacy newsroom) will never generate enough content or traffic to make neighborhood-level coverage profitable. But successful placebloggers scale their staffing to the size of their coverage and earn enough to pay salaries. Chew on that.

5. The amateurs aren't always amateur. Lisa Williams surely can't be considered an amateur now, and Debbie Gallant of BaristaNet is a good example of what happens when a traditional journalist branches out into the placeblogging genre. So if the pro-am divide isn't the issue, what is? Perhaps it's more about culture. Perhaps its more about money. Perhaps it's more about your ideas about control, or responsibility, or propriety.

Nor should we assume that "amateur reporting" is necessarily "inferior reporting." A generic 22-year-old reporter with a J-school diploma might know how to spell "accommodate" and apply AP Style, but does that make him a better news source than a longtime resident "amateur" who knows the community inside and out? I used to be that generic J-school grad, and my new community was a minefield of hidden connections and unseen relationships. So while what I wrote was typically "accurate" (in the sense that it wasn't demonstrably wrong), it was generally devoid of understanding, context or insight.

Newspapers aren't dying, but our assumptions are. Whether we approve of it or not, news is migrating to the Web, and the newspapers that survive the coming shakeout will do so by adjusting to their roles as highly intelligent, carefully edited and moderately profitable niche publications. You can preach local-local-local all you wish, but you're chasing a lonely dollar swirling clockwise down the drain.