Category Archives: news

Software is Eating the News: Are you in the in the Entertainment or Work business?

work-vs-entertainmentRight now, news organizations still haven’t really clarified what business they are in and/or what their audience is really looking for, as a result they often measure and focus on the wrong things.

Information technology businesses fall into two primary categories:

  1. Entertainment: The goal here is to help people have “fun,” to spend their downtime with you. And the more time spent with you the better. It doesn’t really matter whether that time spent makes them a better or worse human being, helps the planet, it’s fundamentally about entertaining people. Think Facebook, Pinterest, movies, gaming, etc.
  2. Work: The goal here is to help people take action and solve problems, whether pay their bills, stock their pantries, lose weight, learn new skills, influence public policies. In this case, the goal is to often spend the least time possible, as the primary thing you care about is the outcome. Traditional B2B software and Google search falls primarily into this category; you’re not using it for fun but to get the task done as efficiently and effectively as possible, and the less time spent the better.

So are journalists and news organizations primarily in the entertainment or work business?

Traditionally, they have straddled both worlds and as a result have muddied their value proposition, measure the wrong things and apply the wrong business models.

Additionally, what one segment of the audience and what journalists’ often think of as entertainment, others often think of as work, politics being one of them.

work-vs-entertainment-politics

In the entertainment world, your goal is to get people to spend as much time with you as possible, since the whole point of your existence is to fill people’s free time. In this scenario, display advertising as a revenue stream and products that encourage spending time make sense.

In the work world, your goal is to minimize the amount of time people spend with you and instead give them the answers to their problems, or eliminate their problems all together. In this case, the less time spent on your site/application is often better, since the goal is to increase their time. In this scenario, display advertising makes absolutely no sense and products that don’t solve problems are bad.

work-vs-entertainment-metrics

So should news organizations focus on delivering more entertainment value or more work value?

And that will be a question for another day. 🙂

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Software is Eating the World and Journalism too!

Marc Andreessen’s seminal 2011 piece Software is Eating the World explains how almost everything is being digitized, strengthening the agile and slaying the slow.

eatingthe-world
And in 2015, news publishers agreed to publish their articles directly on Facebook. Oops?

So how do news organizations avoid becoming the next Borders?

Is it to stick to their knitting and focus primarily on their print assets as media columnist JackShafer argues in his piece “What if the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?

newspapers-made-mistake

While the stick-your-head-in-the-sand-and-pray strategy might seem nice, I think Jack Welch’s quote  “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” highlights the small flaw in this argument.

So why is it that news organizations, some of the earliest adopters of the World Wide Web, are struggling the most?

For the same reason that Kodak, the inventor of digital photography succumbed to digital photography. Instead of adapting their organizations to the new technology, they tried to adapt the new technology to their existing organizations.

In the case of Kodak, this meant going from being a chemical company to a software, camera and ultimately mobile computing company, an almost impossible feat. The chemical plants that used to be their greatest assets, became anchors that drowned them.

So even if news organizations have developers and designers and deliver mobile-first content, they’re still stuck pursuing paper-based strategies in a software and Internet world.

So why are news organizations still stuck in the past?

new-york-times

Two hundred years of history is hard to change. Regardless, of the adoption of mobile, video or virtual reality the basic approach to news hasn’t changed in over 200 years. The news business is a slave to a business model built on the Tweet of the 19th century; the article.

Before the printing press made distribution relatively cheap, there was no such thing as an article, only books, letters & legal documents. Then along came the printing press, and suddenly the idea of private citizens creating throwaway publications as a way to deliver information became a thing. And the article was born. First accompanied by drawings and then later by photos.

And with the advent of radio came audio stories and recorded sounds. Finally visual news came into being via theater and later TV.

The defining traits for all these technologies are:

  1. One-way communication platforms that require experts manning expensive equipment to create and distribute content
  2. Limited space, personalization and sharing
  3. Non-existent search, linking or ability to take action within the platform

So how did these constraints define news and journalism business?

With space being limited to 30 minutes of airtime or 30-60 print pages the entire product was built around disappearing content with no regard to long-term reuse/access since the content viewing and storage mechanism were the same, i.e. the story was both stored and viewed on paper or TV screen.

In the physical world, the costs for adding each additional page or minute of airtime are fairly linear, so the goal is to maximize the limited space with enough high-quality content that people engage with the product but not so much content that it impacted the profitability.

The other key factor about the news business, is that it’s based around disposable/disappearing content. Since the distribution mechanism is also the storage mechanism, i.e the paper or news program, there is little to no value to build long-term content since it either goes in the trash or disappears when the segment is over. As a result, “news” has been defined as throwaway content with little thought about creating content or an information architecture designed to support reuse.

Since space was limited and needed to be constantly refilled,  and since  high-quality content was required to attract and retain customers then it made sense to pay people, journalists, to write stories. Since the primary skill required to fill the space was to be able to tell a story in text or moving pictures, journalist and writer became synonymous.

journalist

Allowing the non-paid public to write anything more than a letter or an occasional op-ed piece meant devaluing the concept of being a journalist and the product they sold. Since the barriers to entry were so high, companies were able to transform the businesses into local and national information monopolies, duopolies or triopolies to be managed for maximum profitability not growth.

And since the technological underpinnings of the business didn’t really change for decades there was no real need for a product management/development organization.  So by the 70s  newspapers and news in general had become culturally-inbred cash cows focused on continuity and maximizing profitability, not growth, for investors.

And then along came the Internet….

The key technological traits of the Internet era are:

  • Infinite personalization: Every screen and item can be personalized just for you.
  • Unlimited space: Every news article ever created can be fit on a single hard drive.
  • Endless interconnectivity: Anyone can connect with anyone anywhere. Distance doesn’t matter.
  • Almost effortless sharing: Words and images can be copied and shared by anyone anywhere without any costs and capture the value of your work.
  • Simple self-service publishing platforms: Any amateur can publish professional quality stories, images & videos
  • Instant Interactivity: The Web doesn’t just deliver information, it enables action, ordering a toaster or organizing a mob.
  • It’s the platform  stupid! Static content can be copied but server-side software can’t.
  • The Network Effect: Each additional person, company and system added to a gravitational platform increases the gravitational pull in an ever-self reinforcing cycle.
  • Active participation: People are no longer content to just be passive participants ingesting pushed information but want to be active contributors to conversations and drive change.
  • Interactive Analytics: Instead of static reports, you can filter and query to see information just the way you want

And just like in every other industry built on outmoded technologies and business models, software is eating journalism and the news business.

The current response: Building faster, better & cheaper buggy whips

buggywhipsad-300x251Given the cultural inbreeding and the institutionalization of what news and journalism are both in academia and in newsrooms, the inability to respond effectively is not surprising.  To date, the changes by news organizations have really been around leveraging technology to do more of what they have already been doing but faster, better and cheaper.

Faster: In the past news organizations competed on speed, trying to beat their competition by getting the story first.  Unlike Wall Street where milliseconds can mean millions, being a few minutes faster than the competition on a commodity story generally won’t reap significant financial rewards.

Better: Since Journalism is all about telling stories, news orgs are adopting new expensive story-telling technologies such as Virtual Reality or building a multimedia experience ala Snowfall to compete against the ocean of free content.

Cheaper: Leveraging AI to write stories ala the AP using AI to generate sports stories (actually innovative) or more frequently cutting staff and wages to drive down costs while pushing their people to write more, blog more, tweet more, etc. more.

The problem with all of these approaches is that they are all about optimizing horse-and-buggy businesses,  instead of developing new automotive-enabled industries. In the IT world, it’s known as paving the cowpath, using new technologies to enshrine old approaches to the world, instead of changing the organization and processes to get the most out of the new possibilities.

If you can’t fight em, join em! Embrace your status as a solutions and information technology organization

The Germans didn’t just demolish the French and Brits at the beginning of WWII because they had tanks and planes, but because they had people who could think differently about using them and saw how they could redefine the battlefield to surprise the enemy and play to their strengths.

So instead of figuring out how to optimize outmoded technologies and processes, news organizations  need to adapt their missions and organizations to the new information battlefield.

The first step to fighting back and winning the war for both the public good and and corporate profits is to embrace the fact that you are in the solution and information-technology business whether you want to be or not.

And in order to be successful as a solutions/IT company, news organizations need to expand their mission and  playing field to capture the new opportunities and defend against irrelevance.  

Move beyond content to enabling insights, action & community collaboration to capture new opportunities and avoid irrelevance

Once you move beyond just documenting the world via articles to providing solutions your opportunities expand a thousandfold.  Take advantage of the gifts that technology gives you and shift your primary mission from just documenting the world to becoming public-service platforms enabling insights, action & community collaboration to make the world a better place.

Why Public service? If you’re not in it for the public service, then you’re nothing but a PR and advertising firm. Journalism at its core is all about public service and the moment that that gets lost, then nothing else matters.

Why Platform? The battle is not about the individual article or one newspaper or another, it’s about competing platforms. Anyone can publish, but the platform determines the user experience, profits and impact. While text, images and even videos can be copied and shared almost anywhere, software platforms provide the  additional interactivity and value required to be economically viable and socially impactful. Relying on Facebook’s platform means they control the conversation, your future and profits.

Why enabling insights? The goal of almost any article is provide insights, to help your audience to understand a little bit more about the world and make decisions about where to live, travel, send their kids to school, what medicines to take, who to vote for. In the past, the primary model has been through the publication of an article, video or even infographic, but modern analytics tools provide so many more ways to help people make decisions. Unfortunately, while news organizations use business intelligence tools internally they’ve almost completely failed to adopt them to provide insights to their audience.

And even when news organizations create decision support tools, since they don’t view themselves as being in the analytics & information business, they fail to monetize and support these products as products.

Why action? When I wrote about kids killing kids or about how the lack of local witness/victim-protection programs force people like “Jose” (not his real name) to live in fear with a bullet lodged next to his brain   while his shooters walk free,  it wasn’t because I just wanted people to go, “that’s interesting.”  I wanted them to take action and make a difference. Software enables you to transform enragement into action, whether donating online, reaching out to their representatives, sending complaints, expressing their gratitude, etc…

Why community collaboration? We are a social species and so not only does the Internet allow us to take action by ourselves but it enables us to organize our friends, neighbors and countrymen to work together to make a difference. Instead of just writing articles about people coming together, we can actually help people come together to create better communities.

Together, this combination provides fills an unmet need, delivers an incredibly powerful value proposition and represent a massive market opportunity. Instead of being content companies competing against every other publishing platform and anyone who can write, you are now providing value Facebook doesn’t and competing  in a fragmented space against primarily homegrown, smaller software companies.

Coming soon: How to go face to face with Facebook and succeed in the conversation business

 

Event Calendars: A Key to Community Engagement & Winning the Content Wars

Providing local residents an online event calendar is one of the most basic yet poorly executed components of community journalism.

So this morning, I went to the CommercialAppeal.com site on my tablet in search of events, and I couldn’t find it,  so finally I grabbed my laptop and after much searching found it buried in the entertainment section and then proceeded to get further frustrated with the search and overall usability. And then I went to see how I could submit an event, and the experience deteriorated even further as the site passed me off to a 3rd party to create the event.

I’m sorry but if news organizations can’t execute their local events calendar with any quality, then they have no right to survive – and honestly won’t and here’s why:

  1. Events are the ceremonies that help communities come together. Whether they be city council meetings, PTSA meetings, volunteer opportunities, community concerts, athletics events, TED Talks, you name it, community events are key to community life. And by not leveraging modern technology to help foster community, you are failing in your public-service mission.
  2. Event information validates, excites and engages your audiences. If you are hosting information about my event and helping me market it, then it gives me a reason to engage with your site and for me to market your site. And unlike Facebook, having your event “featured” on a news site provides validation as well, building a sense of connection to your organization.
  3. Content costs are nearly zero. Since the event organizer is entering the information, news organizations only need to screen for quality and not actually write up the events. This is the reason why Facebook is so profitable because they just provide the platform while others provide the content.
  4. Local events are a key to competing for a local audience. Today there is no single site or source for local event information, both pre and post event. Since so much of what news organizations are all about, this represents a perfect opportunity for news organizations to combine their brand equity, editorial skills and technology to differentiate themselves.

 

So what makes a great online event calendar?

  1. Comprehensive: Instead of forcing people to go to multiple places, allow them to go to one place for everything. It’s not just an entertainment calendar. It feature’s every local event for every type of local organization, neighborhood associations, school events, city council meetings, city planning meetings, sports events, meetups, chamber meetings, afterschool events, you name it.
  2. Intelligent: Users shouldn’t have to work very hard or at all to find the events and information they are looking for. Users need to be able to easily filter and find events that matter to them so the categorization options need to make sense to the users and offer a mix of open ended and fixed filters.
  3. Lazy: Help people be lazy and successful. Users should have information pushed to them on a regular basis and the option to have reminders embedded in their calendars so they don’t have to constantly search for options.
  4. Interactive: Ask users for feedback about the events they attended as a way to deepen the user engagement and transform the site into just a calendar into a conversation and drive engagement.

In order to succeed, news organizations will have to think of themselves first as  civic intelligence and engagement platforms that combine traditional journalism with design thinking and technology product management to develop new ways of informing and empowering their communities.

 

CA Investigation: Too Many Facts & Not Enough Design= Missed Opportunities

Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation

Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.

If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.

So what do I mean by that?

So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.

Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.

Learn how the brain works

The brain has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.

Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

Help me understand my government

First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.

The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.

While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions  that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.

Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:

  • Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
  • Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
  • Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.

Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?

Help me vote

Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.

The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.

If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”

Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)

Don’t make me work

Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.

So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.