Category Archives: Journalism

Lies, damn lies and crime statistics: You can only trust the homicide stats!

A recent report about the latest crime statistics made me dust off an old article I was working on about just how dramatically crime is under-reported in the hardest hit neighborhoods. While many cities including Santa Ana have made dramatic progress since the early 90’s – understand there can be a huge gulf between reported crime and actual crime statistics.

“You’d hear the gunfire,” said Santa Ana police officer John Hibbison. “Then you’d wait for the report over the radio and nothing. The only time people would call was when someone needed medical attention.”

Crime had gotten so bad on parts of Third Street that residents had lost all confidence in the police. Rapes, robberies, carjackings and shootings would go unreported. And if reported, would usually go unprosecuted because victims and witnesses would clam up for fear of being killed.

Hibbison, who helped organize Operation Roundup, an undercover sting operation which netted 117 arrests, freely admits crime raged unchecked and unreported in the neighborhood for many years before the September, 1994, operation.

During his first night of surveillance, he and his fellow officer witnessed two major gunfights in a period of 30 minutes. Not a single person called the police.

When police arrested a juvenile for murder and robbery, they had no idea just how active he had been. He confessed to 50 robberies and 100 auto thefts. The officers found only eight of the crimes in the police reports.

Despite the daily gunfire, silence reigned on Third Street, gangmembers made sure of that. They would regularly hang cats from the telephone wires with knives stuck through them. Shoot out bulletproof light covers with high-powered rifles. Kill people’s pets who barked to loudly. All warnings – keep your mouths shut if you want to live.

There are many “Third Street”s in Santa Ana, Orange County and across the country where residents deadbolt themselves in at night, close their ears to the sounds of semi-automatics spraying lead across the landscape and almost never call the police.

It’s not a new phenomenom. Residents of high-crime neighborhoods have learned to turn the other way or the other cheek to crime since at least the turn of the century when the mob ruled the immigrant ghettoes of the East.

Regardless, crime is dramatically underreported in high-crime neighborhoods from Santa Ana to South Central Los Angeles. No statistics exist to show exactly how few serious crimes are reported to the police in the hardest hit neighborhoods, but many Santa Ana residents can tell stories of robberies, shootings and burglaries that were never reported.

National crime victimization surveys show only about 30 percent of all crimes are reported nationwide but experts say even less are reported in poor, high-crime inner-city areas.

It’s not surprising then that despite downturns in recorded-crime rates that many Americans feel no safer today than when recorded-crime rates were much higher.

The lack of reporting has many reasons and serious consequences. Every individual has a different reason for not calling the police, but fear is the number one reason cited by most residents and police. Still each decision not to pick up the phone and dial 911 or make a police report usually has a whole host of reasons behind it: from distrust of the police to a sense that the crime isn’t important enough to bother the police.

For property crimes, insurance is often the divide between reporting a crime and not. After all, if you don’t have insurance and have no expectation that the police will ever find and return your property to you,why report it? If you have  insurance the only way you can get reimbursed is by filing a police report. The end result, lower-crime neighborhoods often times appear to actually have higher property crime statistics. When in reality the real difference is that they have more insured people – not more crime.

At the same time not calling often leaves police blind to the extent of the problem, demoralizes officers because they can’t get community cooperation, leads to an uneven distribution of resources because the true extent of crime doesn’t show up in the statistics and often adds to the neighborhoods crime problem.

Ironically successful community policing may actually lead to a higher reported-crime rate, even though crime is going down or staying the same, because residents will typically call more as they gain more confidence in the police.

As a resident of Santa Ana from 94 to 97 I experienced this first hand.

I remember shortly after I moved into the ‘hood, the sound of gunfire erupted a block or two away. Having grown up in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, I called the police – assuming that when you called the police, the gunfire would stop.

Instead, the sound of shotgun blasts and semi-autos continued ripping through the night air. So I called again. More gunfire. Another call. More gunfire. Another call. After the fourth call, I stopped calling – and the gunfire went on off and on for another 2 or 3 hours.

After that I stopped calling altogether – after all what was the use, as my calls didn’t make the gunfire go away. In fact, even though I soon could begin to differentiate the sound of fire crackers from fire arms, I discovered that my calls of gunfire were never even logged as a “crime,” instead they were incidents as there was no victim to report the crime.

Ironically, after Operation Roundup and a series of other gang crackdowns and my neighborhood quieted down to the point where instead of gunfire being a nightly occurrence, it became a rare event. I actually began calling again –as it was no longer just background noise, and I had confidence that the police would actually do something.

My own personal experience from living in the hood, scouring the police blotters, conversations with gangsters and friends, was that murders are the only accurate statistic – everything else is undercounted. My rule of thumb became:

For every 1 homicide, 3 people were shot and 30 people were shot at. And it’s rare that any of the people being shot at ever call the police.

So is crime going up or down? Don’t know. But I do know is don’t accept reported crime statistics at face value, as Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damn lies and reported crime statistics.”

Talk and be killed: How a lack of a local witness protection program lets killers walk free

(I started writing this 14 years ago when I used to live in and write about life in Santa Ana,  but could never find anyone interested in publishing stories about stories about the way life really works in the hood. I’ve always wondered what happened to Jose and his shooters. All names have been changed at the request of the victim.)

Jose knows who shot him in the head.

Only he can’t tell the police for fear of getting his whole family murdered. And unlike the drug dealers turned informants, he can’t get into a witness protection program. Instead, he keeps his mouth shut and two-more predators continue terrorizing yet more families.

Jose isn’t alone. While high-profile informants for federal cases receive may receive “star” treatment from the Federal Witness Protection Program, witnesses and victims of your run-of-the-mill gang homicides, shootings and robberies, etc… aren’t eligible for anything – except payback from the gang that committed the crime and their own local gang, which doesn’t believe in involving the police.


Jose was returning from a night of cruising on Bristol Street with his three friends when he turned on a side street to go home.

Stuck in traffic and pumping the Old School hits from the 70s, there was nothing he could do when two guys from a rival neighborhood spotted him. Even though he didn’t claim, they both pulled pistols from their waistbands and unloaded on him.

He ducked but it was too late. Glass, bullet slugs and blood blew everywhere. Seventeen bullet holes pierced the Chevy Nova. One slug hit his friend in the shoulder. One clipped his ear, burst through his skull and lodged itself just a millimeter from his spinal cord. Another ripped through his stomach area.

He lost consciousness before coming to a minute or two later, the glass sill tinkling to the ground and his friends screaming in horror and fear. Miraculously he stayed conscious long enough to drive to the hospital.

“I was just thinking about my family, my kid,” said the 23-year-old who was shot two years ago. “My wife was pregnant and I couldn’t leave them.”

Jose is not his real name. I cannot tell you his name, the street he lives on or the name of the gang who shot him. Jose like so many others is trapped in the code of silence, caught between the gangsters who shot him and the gang who controls his street. His neighborhood gang wanted to handle the justice, personally.

“My friends wanted to get payback, but I told them not to do anything,” said Jose. “‘Leave it up to God,’ that’s what my mom said. If I didn’t have my family, I would give payback, yah, part of me wanted to do that.  But what are you going to gain from payback, it’s just going to get worse – starts a whole war.”


When he finally got out of intensive care, investigators came to question him about the shooting.

“They were saying, I had to tell them who did it, that it was for my own good,” said Jose. “They don’t know what’s for my own good. I told them I didn’t see anything.”

Counseled by friends and family, he kept his mouth shut for fear of retaliation.

“They’d know who ratted and would come shooting into your house,” said Jose. “I would even take ’em to their house as long as they gave me protection or move me somewhere but I got out of the hospital, I can’t work, all I get is disability. I can’t afford to move, an apartment anywhere else is $700. Cops don’t do that, they see so much shooting, if they did it for everyone…” his voice dropping off into a sigh.

If he talked to the police, it wouldn’t just be allied gangmembers who would be after him, but he would be breaking the local neighbrhood code of silence.

“They respect me as if I was a gangmember but I still can’t break the rule – you can’t talk. I’m kind of trapped between two sides.”

Political Coverage: Moving from just reporting to providing civic engagement tools

  • Do you know who your government representatives are?
  • Do you know who to vote for?
  • Do you participate in the political and governmental process outside of voting?

If you’re like me, the answer to all of the above is, “Not really”. And the media is partly to blame.

Instead of providing people the information and tools they need to easily and intelligently engage in local politics, news organizations are stuck in old paradigms, Political Journalism 1.0 – covering local politics following a paper and TV-based model – which is a debacle for both their finances and society as a whole.

Despite the dysfunction and the $4.2 billion political ad spending predicted for 2010, there has been very little discussion about how to comprehensively leverage technology to bring simplicity, transparency and engagement to local politics, which is especially pathetic when there are so many existing models to borrow from.

The first step into the new world is to take off your “story” glasses and try on your “etail,” “social-networking” and other glasses as you think about moving from just covering politics to becoming a platform for civic engagement. This means providing an editorial and technology platform designed to enable participation.

Transforming Retail Politics into Etail Politics

You need to find a new toaster. Where do you turn? It’s easy, you type “toaster” in the search box, up comes a list that you can sort by price, brand and features. Need information about the specific toaster, click on the links to read product spec, customer reviews, etc.. Want to compare selected toasters, select the models and see how they stack up side by side.

By contrast you need to figure out who to vote for in your local city council. Where do you turn to?  Do a search for your City Council. What pulls up? An individual candidate website.  Maybe you can find a list of city council members – but good luck finding your specific representatives and candidates. And if you can find a list, is it easy to compare them based on their specific stands?

No, No and no! In order to solve this, news organizations need to think of voting as a purchase process and apply basic etail and mapping concepts to politics.

Step 1: Find

You need to help people find their representatives and candidates. Most of us don’t know who our local representatives are – and the current story structure doesn’t help us easily figure that out.

Residents should be able to simply enter their address and pull up a list of all their representatives and candidates from their city council to congressional district.

Today there are multiple sites that enable you to enter your zip code and they will provide a list of your congressional and in some case state representatives – but I’ve yet to find a site that lists all your representatives down to the local level. And amazingly, no local media organizations provide this basic functionality, despite the fact that local politics is a core news offering.

If properly integrated, it would even enhance the reading experience and help make stories more relevant, after all, how many times have you wondered which one of the politicians mentioned in a story are your representatives? Wouldn’t it be great if your specific representative’s names were highlighted with a link to that candidate’s engagement page. Or at the very least enable readers to easily find out which is their representative.
Step 2: Choose and Engage
It’s election season and as I drive to work, I’m surrounded by a sea of signs, but when I go online and try to figure out who to vote for, there’s a paucity of trustworthy easy to find information. And I certainly can’t easily compare candidates side by side the way I can when selecting a toaster online.  The result is frequently clueless, frustrated voters – often either guessing who to vote for, skipping the majority of the races and/or not participating in the elections at all – angry at the media for its haphazard, mostly unhelpful approach to campaign coverage.

If the traditional media is going to stay relevant and regain its standing, it needs to begin providing the same tools people use when shopping online, deciding on where to eat and engaging with each other. That means providing readers the ability to easily:

  1. Compare candidates qualification and positions on key issues. This requires offering both a technology platform and an editorial oversight role to select the key issues for candidates to respond to. A “journalist” should be both identifying issues, e.g. new court ruling will require the school district to redraw school boundaries, and polling residents about what they view as key issues.
  2. Reduce the shouting by limiting the conversation to residents in their specific districts. One of the problems of the Internet era is it’s easy to become the target of a national audience and be overwhelmed by angry voices from outside the district. By requiring address level information to participate, it’s may be possible to reduce the noise from outraged minorities (not necessarily people of color) on the left or the right that often seem to hijack the political conversations.
  3. Encourage participation by enforcing clear rules of engagement designed to maintain civility – as all it takes is a couple of verbal hand grenades to transform the conversation into shouting matches. And I, like many people, find the flames just completely turn me off – and often make me wish for the pre-comment era.
  4. Ask questions and receive answers from politicians. The YouTube debates enabled ordinary people to ask questions and Obama took it the next logical step with his Open for Questions
  5. Vote early and often for candidates. The site pioneered the ability to vote online – and as simple and as silly it is, it’s addicting. Visible Vote enables you to “vote” on candidates and bills. And this should be a standard for any political site. People should be able to rate and vote on the politician, their stands and their votes – as a way to give people both a voice and engage in the site. There should be weekly polls on the candidates and representatives – and give people the ability to vote on candidates’ positions, ads and everything else.
  6. Campaign online in favor or against candidates. Make it easy for people to share their opinions, create petitions and take action. People post signs in their front yards, why not make it easy to show your support online by providing people easy-to-use tools to show their support on their Facebook pages, blogs and emails.
  7. Personalize political stories.  When I read an article, I’m often not sure if it applies to me, or which council person I should care about. In the future there needs to be prompts and linkages that make it easy to determine who in the article is my elected representative and their position on an issue. Traditional story telling isn’t dead – it just needs to be updated to take advantage of new technologies and meet key readers’ needs.
  8. Read reviews from groups and people they trust. Customer reviews are standard on retail shopping sites, but are a little more problematic for reviewing politicians. As a conservative gay Republican I don’t care what straight liberal Democrats think about a politician. I care what other conservative gay Republicans think. Today, sites like or enable you to not only read reviews but select reviews based on what group the reviewer belonged to. After all, I may not trust a journalist to provide me with “unbiased” commentary, but if I belong to the NRA, I’ll trust their candidate ratings.

Until news organizations move from just thinking of themselves as storytellers and thinking about how they can leverage the Internet to drive civic engagement, they will continue to fall further behind the curve.

Partnering with Community Organization for local Content receives about 27,000 unique visitors each month and as many as 250,000 page views a month.

Not enough to make anyone rich, but considering it’s a local site covering just one neighborhood in San Diego, it’s a pretty impressive stat.

Of course, not every local site is updated multiple times a day or has people as devoted and as able as Nancy Moors and Ann Garwood working on the site, but there are plenty of people and organizations that are already publishing community newsletters and Web sites.

Unfortunately, many of these organizations struggle because they lack the tools to create simple but quality Web sites and even more importantly, the channels to market them to readers.

Newspapers, which are always talking about the importance of local news, unfortunately have done little to actively help organizations easily and effectively connect with their communities. And this is a tragedy for both parties.

Newspapers miss out on an invaluable source of free local content, which is what readers desperately crave and don’t get from their large regional paper. In addition, by not providing the tools and bringing these publishers into the fold, they are creating competitors and losing audiences.

In fact, it feeds a common perception among many readers, that the local paper is arrogant and uncaring.

Or as Moors stated, “Newspapers have been arrogant, thinking that they are only choice for so long that they’ve blown off the community. That’s what’s given life to community newspapers.”

And she spent her whole life working for newspapers! Imagine what other people think.

On the flip side, most community organizations struggle to get the word out because they lack the tools and the channel to communicate their message to their constituents. Even sophisticated operations, rarely have reach that local newspapers have.

Not surprisingly, Moors said they’ve gotten repeated requests from various neighborhood associations to help them with their sites.

“We’re passionate about our community and that’s why we do it.”

Isn’t that why we got into journalism in the first place? And wouldn’t it be great if newspapers did a better job of tapping into that passion.

Private Label Video Services: Picking an Online Video Partner

To quote Suzie Reider the SVP of CNET’s Gamespot, “You could hire five engineers and have a video upload service in a year,” or you could save yourself a year of work and just partner with one of the many video-sharing services that have popped up in the last 12 months.

The question is how do you decide whom to pick? Especially, when there are so many players in the space and they all more or less seem the same.

I won’t list specific companies as I’ve done work with video companies in the space and I don’t want my personal finances affecting my recommendations. However, here is what I would look for when choosing a partner.

  1. Product/Technology: Is it easy to use, implement and scalable?
  2. Services: What additional services do they offer, e.g screening of videos for objectionable content or even editing for quality?
  3. Content: What content do they offer, e.g. movie clips, sports highlights, etc.
  4. Business Model: Is it ad supported? Do they provide the advertising?

Given the wide variety of companies and different variations, no one company will be right for every publisher. In fact, I’d argue that you should expect to do deals with multiple vendors depending upon what content and functionality you want.

The goal of this article is to give you a high-level guide to help you think about how to proceed as you move forward. It is not designed to be the end-all, be-all guide to every little piece of the video puzzle.

The reality is every service has different areas where they excel and fail. And given the rapid rate of change, what’s fiction today may be fact tomorrow.

For more details and in-depth reviews on some of the players in the space, check out the following articles:

Product & Technology

While each service have fairly similar features, there are some key differences between the services. The following are just a few things to look for when reviewing the technical aspects the product.

Ease of implementation

If you can’t implement it, then nothing else matters. For larger papers that have significant IT and design resources, this shouldn’t be a big deal. For smaller organizations, it can make the difference between execution and just another good idea.

Seamless user experience

Users shouldn’t be able to tell that they’re interacting with another service. That means the service should offer single sign on capabilities and the ability to customize templates to match your own – or better yet even embed the video player directly into your pages.

Ease of use

Feature functionality doesn’t mean squat if it’s difficult to use. Ease of use for both the viewers and uploader is critical. It doesn’t matter if your developer thinks it cool, what matters is if his parents or grandparents can use it.

No Downloads

IT administrators in many companies prevent users from installing new applications – and the reality is most people don’t want to have to download and install an application just to watch a 30 second video. As a result, you shouldn’t require additional downloads to see your videos.

The exceptions to the rule are if you are using a service that provides:

  1. High definition capabilities for longer videos, what are now being referred to as “lean-back” content, as in relax and watch them like you would your TV.
  2. The ability to compress video locally on the “uploader’s” machine so that it reduces the upload time for users.

In either case people will be more likely to take the time – but always make sure to offer a download-free version.

While technically Flash requires a download, the reality is over 98% of users already have it on their systems, so it’s rare that anyone will require a download.

Cross platform

It used to be if it worked in Internet Explorer, that was good enough but with the advent of Firefox, the resurgence of Macs and the emergence of cell phones and other platforms, it’s critical to pick someone who already offers cross platform capability or will be offering it soon.

Video size

Some services offer over 100 megabytes of uploads and other less than 10. Given the decrease in both bandwidth and storage costs, expect to see the limits on upload size increase.

Tagging & Organizing Content

This is an area that is truly lacking in the vast majority of services I’ve seen so far and is a key to creating to creating easily accessible, organized community content.

However at least one company offers the ability to create customizable categories and subcategories, which is the key to organizing the content in logical easy-to-find groupings based on people’s local communities, e.g. families, neighborhoods, cities, churches, schools, type of event, and community organizations, etc.

For example, just think about a high school sporting event, what information do you need to collect in order to find that information five years from now? How would someone either browse to the video or search for it? By location of event, players’ names, date, high school, type of event, etc.?

If you have all the information, then it’s possible to either group the content together for easy browsing or by searching.

While creating the initial taxonomy will require hard work, inevitably be imperfect and require significant modifications, it’s critical to creating a usable architecture when you have thousands of videos.

If you’ve already tackled this subject, let me know what you’ve done and any lessons learned – as it will be the subject of a future article.

Review and Editing

Anyone can upload anything on YouTube, but quality is a key differentiator for “newspapers.” As a result, the system will need good editing tools that enable you to:

1. Rapidly screen the content for appropriateness. Is it porn or a Picasso? You don’t want to have to sit through the whole video to find out – and several vendors have built tools that enable you to quickly view snapshots of the video.

2. Find the good parts and eliminate the crud. As any editor knows (and most writers’ hate) the best way to improve content is to eliminate most of it. This is especially true of home videos that often consist of dead time before and after the actual event. Just think of baseball, 2 hours of boredom broken by seconds of action.

3. Merge or “mashup” multiple videos. Imagine you have two videos showing the winning catch from the Friday-night football game. It would nice to be able to stitch them together to create a highlight video.

Sharing/Social Networking

Enabling users to easily share videos with each other is a key to viral growth. It’s a basic function of almost every video sharing service.


Making sure the best of the content bubbles to the top is the key to driving topline revenue growth. Most services offer the ability for readers to rate the videos and provide functionality to view the most popular, highest rated, etc.


Getting additional headcount to do anything these days is a challenge for most newspapers, so finding a vendor that will offer services to assist you with both the initial implementation, e.g. what works best, and the ongoing maintenance may be critical for most papers success.

Currently, several vendors offer outsourced screening of content to catch copyright and objectionable content issues. However, many newspapers may ultimately want a service that will provide the editing and actual posting of the video as well.

Imagine, rather than having to add editing staff to review and edit videos from the Friday night football game, you just pay a little extra to your video service to do it for you.

If someone offered outsourced video editing services, would you use them? And would it increase your probability and/or speed of adoption? Email me and give me your feedback.


While everyone is Gaga about user-generated content, many of the most popular videos on YouTube are professionally created. If you look at what the big boys, i.e. Washington Post and NewYork Times, have introduced first it’s professional content.

If you’re looking to get online video up-and-running quickly but aren’t quite ready to jump into the deep end with user-generated content or have your staff run around with video cameras, look for providers with plug and play content that doesn’t require any additional editorial resources or risk.

The first source is the AP video for a quick no-cost source of video. The second are movie trailers. They’re free and can be plunked into your movie review section.

I’m curious, if someone offered a video service with a selection of movie trailers that you could easily plug into your site, would you adopt?

If you think of the section of your site as being a series of channels, you can quickly imagine what other types of videos that would make sense, e.g. videos about cars for your automotive section, real estate videos in the homes section, sports highlights in sports, etc….

The New York Times has already done this

Again, are you currently looking for syndicated content you can easily plug into your site? Do you know of companies offering these services? And what’s your experience been with them? Let me know.

Business Model

The majority of private-label services are offering revenue share with their partners – but with slightly different models.

The basic models are:

  1. The video company provides the advertising and gives you a share of the revenue.
  2. You provide the advertising and give a share of the revenue to the company.
  3. You pay a fixed CPM and then sell the advertising yourself.

I hope this helps. It was very tempting to write complete articles on each section – but let me know what you’d like me to go into greater depth – and I’ll try to cover it in my next piece.

Newspapers: Problem child or cash cow?

I still remember my first day at the Orange County Register back in July 1994.

I assumed, now that I was going to work at a real paper, I’d have access to the latest and greatest technology and could use my hard-earned statistical analysis and computer cartography skills to do some Pulitzer-prize winning computer assisted reporting.

Then I saw my workstation, a PC XT with 4 MHz of computing power and no floppy drive – incredibly archaic even by 1994 standards.

The next two years were both thrilling and demoralizing, as I tried to make sense of the contradictions between newspapers’ huge profits and their almost complete lack of investment in technology, training and adequate news resources.

It was always a source of grousing amongst us reporters, as we couldn’t understand why such a profitable industry paid so poorly and invested so little in new initiatives.

Then, I left the newspaper industry, became a product manager and learned about the “Boston Box.” And suddenly, I understood why such a profitable industry invested so little in its people and products.

The Boston Box, also known as product lifecycle management, divides products into four basic categories.

Boston Box

  • Problem child/Question Marks: A new product that requires significant investment to grow and become profitable, e.g. new Internet initiatives.
  • Star: Assuming the product crosses the chasm, it becomes a star – characterized by high profits and growth. A star needs to be carefully nurtured and given the investment required to continue growing.
  • Cash Cow: At a certain point the product reaches maturity and is no longer growing in market share and or revenue stagnates and begins declining. At this point the goal is to maximize profitability and milk the cow for as much cash as possible.
  • Dog: Finally, the decline steepens and the goal is to profitably retire the product before it begins sucking resources from new replacement products.

Can you guess which category traditionally newspapers belong in?

You guessed it. The cash cow. Lets see stagnate revenues and gradual declines in market share over the last 20 years as circulation declines. So what does a “smart” manager do? Minimize investments and maximize profitability. They focus primarily on cost reduction to maximize efficiency, instead of investing for growth.

Whenever possible they merge with thecompetition to create a monopoly (product quality isn’t as much of an issue) and eliminate “redundancies.”

The problem with this thinking is that if they focus primarily on cost cutting, the quality of their product deteriorates and the customer base flees, resulting in yet more cost cuts and lost customers, accelerating the downward cycle.

On the other hand, if investors view the business as a cash cow and are expecting it to deliver 20% net profit margins, it’s hard to make significant investments without upsetting the “street.”

The problem newspapers and local TV news face now is that in order for them to make the transition from the old to the new, they need to invest heavily in new ventures that will initially take away from their profitability. And not only that, but now newcomers are using market shrink strategies to grab market share, e.g. Craigslist, and stealing revenue from newspapers.

So are newspapers cash cows, problem children – or dogs? And what’s going to happen next?

Your thoughts?

Generating New Revenue and Readership from Old Archives

Newspapers are like icebergs. The visible content represents a small fraction of the actual content available.

Think about it. The daily newspaper represents 1/365 th of the year’s content – and since most newspapers have been around for 50 years or more, each day’s content only represents about 1/20,0000 th of the total content available for mining.

While the Internet makes information instant – it also makes it timeless. So an article written in 1886 (once it’s been digitized) can be just as easily accessed as one written in 2006. Newspapers just need to come up with creative ways of mining what they already own.

As a result of the news media’s traditional focus on what’s new, they’ve given short shrift to making their archives easy and enjoyable to access. Readers can search the archives for articles but unless a reader is searching for a specific article or as part of a research project – the archives are neither easy nor inviting.

As a result, newspapers are missing a key opportunity to:

  • Create a new category. Local history is an entirely new category that nobody currently owns.
  • Differentiate themselves. While Yahoo! and Google, can deliver news from around the globe, newspaper archives are one of the few sources of local history and contemporary perspectives on historical events.
  • Increase readership. Done right the archives can both increase the total number of readers and page views.
  • Add low-cost short and long-term revenue. A news story typically has a week-or-less half-life, with the vast majority of readership occurring on the first day. Historical content can generate readership and revenue for years without significant ongoing investment.

So what can you do to leverage the underside of the iceberg?

First, temporarily forget about the “new” part of newspapers –and think about what people might want that you have? Browse through bookstores, the Web and other places for examples of the type of information you already have or people might want.

Second, think about how and why people read newspapers and visit news sites. Do people pick up newspapers searching for specific articles? Or do they browse the individual sections looking for something of interest, something surprising, something they didn’t know before? While we occasionally search for specific items of interest, most people are browsers – and that’s why newspapers are divided into sections, etc. to facilitate the finding of content by browsing. So why should it be any different for your archives?

Third, find the right resources to make it happen. You need someone who understands storytelling, business and technology to transform ideas into profitable products. Someone who can step outside of the traditional newspaper paradigm and look at your content with an entirely fresh site of eyes.

Fourth, start small. Since the majority of the content has already been created, you can easily test ideas and see what works without investing vast resources into the project

In order to help jump start the process, I’ve come up with a few ideas – some very simple to execute and others that will require years to complete and unprecedented cooperation between papers.

Thematic Access

While the archives are a treasure trove of information and sellable content, currently readers are forced to use crude tools to search them and lack the benefit of any kind of thematic structure to guide them.

Just as papers have created different sections of the paper, and books have chapters to guide readers – archives need to have themes, timelines and other tools to engage and guide readers to their destination.

Whether you are wandering through a bookstore, searching a library database or reading a textbook, they are all designed to help you find what you want even if you don’t know exactly where you want to go. They are all facilitating your discovery process by logically grouping and presenting content in such a way that the journey is a key part of the user experience.

Newspapers need to think about their archives the same way.

A good starting point is to find a particular topic that’s hot and has deep historical roots or an upcoming anniversary event, then find stories in your archives that give local contemporary perspectives on the issue, and finally create a subsection with links to the content.

Or think about current issues, whether immigration or land-use and find stories from over the years that highlight the changing perspectives and issues, etc. Just this weekend, a story in my local paper referenced a 1957 disaster to highlight how 50-years later California is still discussing the same problem.

It would have been fascinating to be able to read some of the actual stories – instead of just references to them.

All that’s required is to find matching stories in the archives – both online and on microfilm. Given all the tools today, it’s easy to convert the microfilm to either text, JPEG or PDF for viewing on the Web.

So for just a few dollars, a newspaper can re-use their existing content to create compelling stories. And once the themes/sections have been created – they can continue to generate revenue for little or no cost.


Keyword searches are very crude ways to find what you want. Especially since reading newspaper articles is often more of an exercise in browsing – than searching for specific content.

For example, I tried a search on the site for the “civil rights” between 1950 and 1960. It returned 6,250 articles – which is just too overwhelming.

Now imagine if someone systematically reviewed and catalogued the articles so that the term “Civil Rights” also had timelines and was further subcategorized by race/ethnicity, segregation/desegration, etc. – just like a library database or the Yahoo! Directory.

Now people can do a combination of browsing and searching to find the articles they want – providing a much better user experience and encouraging many more page views and ad dollars!

And rather than every paper recreate the wheel, why not work together to create a standard catalogue that can be used to classify your content. That way users will already be familiar with the structure and more likely to use not only your archives but other papers as well.


Once enough newspapers have created a standard, then they can enable users to search not just their archives – but other participants’ archives as well. So someone could search for Civil Rights Act of 1964 and see articles from multiple newspapers.

Imagine being able to read articles and opinions from the New York Times, The Atlanta Constitution, the Birmingham News and dozens of others – referencing the same civil rights issues. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to be able to effortlessly glide between articles from the South and the North about key events?

Marketing the Archives

Newspapers are always looking for ways to reach younger readers. Teachers are always looking for ways to make history come alive.

Since textbooks tend to be either national or regional in scope – for most of the country the civil rights struggle is something that happened somewhere else, i.e. the South, instead of something that every part of the country has struggled with.

Growing up in Southern California, I always assumed legalized discrimination didn’t exist. Especially since the textbooks treated the civil rights struggle as something that took place in the South. So I was shocked to learn that many houses had legal restrictions preventing Blacks, Jews, Hispanics and Asians from owning them – and that some of the earliest desegregation cases took place in Southern California.

What better way to personalize a historical issue, than by creating localized lesson packets for students and teachers that point them to your archives – so a teacher can supplement his/her lesson plan with local stories.

When I published a community newsletter, I once had a group of local high school students research and write a series of articles about the local history. They were fascinated, amazed and filled with pride that their local neighborhood, known more for crime and poverty, at one time was a hang out for the stars.

So create lesson plans that leverage your archives and then use your Newspapers in Education program to publicize them in the schools. Now you’re not only getting younger readers to interact with you and training them to use you for historical research – but you’re helping educate them as well – enhancing your image in the community.

Get Personal

My father was born just two weeks after Wall Street crashed in 1929. He like thousands of other New Mexicans migrated to Los Angeles in search of opportunity. Over the course of his 76 years, he has either witnessed or played a role in many of the events that shaped Los Angeles, the Southwest and the country, including seeing the flash of the first atomic bomb and becoming the first Mexican American professor at East LA College.

Of course he’s not alone in having great stories to share. There are millions of other people that have just as many tales to tell – so why not encourage them to participate and give them the ability to submit writings, recordings, videos and photos to the archives.

What better way to give your readers a personal stake in your publication than by allowing them to share their stories? Again, by reaching out to the schools, you can transform the students from just readers into reporters and have them interview their parents and grandparents about specific issues and upload their stories to the Archives.

Of course, once people upload their own content, they’ll want to share it with their friends and family. Suddenly, newspapers now have their users marketing the site for them and creating a community.

Given all the hype and cash surrounding community sites, doesn’t it make sense to take a lesson from their playbooks?

Local Sponsors for Local History

How often have you heard the term, “Your local bank, car dealership, etc….” in an ad?

Give local advertisers the opportunity to sponsor local history. Instead of just running a typical banner ad that has nothing to do with the page, the ad can be tied to the content, e.g. “Local History Brought to You by Your Local Bank, XYZ Inc.” – without breaching the firewall between editorial and advertising.

The advertiser is now the sponsor of a cause – bringing local history to local students. Award them with a plaque. Thank them in ads announcing the site. Make them feel good about what they’re doing for the community and what sponsoring does for their brand – instead of just thinking in terms of CPM or CPC.

While Google, Yahoo! Craig’s List and others can duplicate much of what newspapers do – only newspapers have history. So dust off your archives and make them work for you.