Some Context on Ezra Klein’s “News Site/Encyclopedia” Concept

It appears that the big project that led Wonkblog proprietor Ezra Klein to bolt The Washington Post for VoxMedia is to "build the world's first hybrid news site/encyclopedia," according to a job posting on VoxMedia's ProjectX site. The posting says Klein wants to "build and continuously update a comprehensive set of explainers of the topics we cover. We want to create the single best resources for news consumers anywhere."

Interesting idea. But it won't be the first swing at such a concept. In fact, none other than The Washington Post Co. chased a similar idea…15 years ago.

It was called Context4, and the reason you've never heard of it is because it never made it past early planning and prototyping stages, for various reasons. But a group of us, working for the Post, pursued the idea for several months in 1998 in a partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica, search engine Infoseek and a couple of other partners. 

The idea—conceived by then-WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive CEO Marc Teren—was to create an engine that would attach deep contextual and background information to any Post or Newsweek Web story, Context4 mockupincluding story archives, relevant encyclopedia entries, video and other content.
Conversely, Britannica would add live news content to its online encyclopedia entries, so that they would be constantly updated with the latest developments and information on each subject.

Britannica had an impressive team of of data/search experts in La Jolla, Calif., that did some amazing work on the engine behind Context4, which could analyze content, fetch contextual information and attach it in real time—pretty heady stuff back then.

The project made it as far as a detailed product plan, mockups (above) and a proof-of-concept prototype before foundering. I can't recall the exact reasons it was stillborn, but I believe it had to do in large part with Infoseek's acquisition by Disney in mid-project and Britannica's own problems as its core encyclopedia business was ravaged by the Web. (Odd footnote: the corporate holiday present for the Post digital staff that year was a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannicas—yes, old-fashioned books. How ironic.)

One other problem: There wasn't really a firm business model behind the Context4 idea, and I wonder how VoxMedia and Klein will make their version pay.

Of course, it's a very different world now. When Context4 was in development in 1998, there was no Google, no Wikipedia, pretty much none of the digital landscape as we know it now. The idea of adding rich contextual content to news stories was fairly radical then. With aggregation, curation, social media, contextual search and other tools commonplace today, it's not as novel a concept.

It will be interesting to see what Klein and Voxmedia do with their version, which no doubt is far more sophisticated than what we worked on years ago. But given Klein's decision to leave The Washington Post to pursue his vision, it's fascinating that a similar idea kicked around the Post many years ago. 

Introducing Newspeg — A New Way to Look at News

Do you get the feeling you're awash in a flood of news?

The internet has unleashed a torrent of news sources, old and new, that we're all scrambling to make sense of and sort out. The old convenient package of news that landed on the driveway each morning or played on TV at dinnertime has been replaced by a cacophony of sources that can be overwhelming.

Newspeg logoTo try to make some sense of the news torrent, a group of us created Newspeg, a Web and mobile social news platform that anyone can use to collect, curate and share news with others. 

You can use Newspeg to create a collection of stories for yourself on a particular topic, or to share your news interests with your friends and other Newspeg visitors. Each story you "peg" to Newspeg displays a headline, a photo and the story's source. With a click, you can read the entire story on its originating site. You can add comments or like a story, or repeg a story from someone else. 

Naturally,  Newspeg is integrated with Twitter and Facebook, so stories collected on Newspeg can be quickly and easily shared even more broadly. 

We won't lie: Newspeg is unabashedly inspired by Pinterest, which has some utility for sharing news content but really is better suited for favoriting and sharing photos, fashion, designs, recipes and other non-news items. Newspeg, as the name implies, is purpose-built for curating and sharing news. 

Newspeg home

Some of the people who've seen Newspeg have described it as "Pinterest for news." That sounds good to us. 

There are plenty of other news-curation platforms out there, but most of them are algorithm-driven newsbots. That's fine as far as it goes, but we believe the human factor is critical. Newspeg draws from the wisdom of the crowd to create an ever-changing display of news that reflects what real people think is interesting, and to allow for the creation of deep, human-driven collections of news on specific topics.

Newspeg draws on a lot of the work I've done over the past couple of decades in searching for new models for news distribution, particularly in the area of curation and aggregation, which I think is very important in helping people sort through the huge flow of information we're all dealing with daily on our phones, tablets and desktops. In creating Newspeg, I've been greatly aided by longtime friends and colleagues Bobby Phillips, Jeff Aiken and Amra Tareen, who played critical roles in conceiving and building the Newspeg platform. Many thanks to them.

Newspeg is designed to be publisher-friendly:  we're giving branded credit to the sites that produce stories and sending traffic directly back to the original stories. Some publishers we've talked to even have  contemplated using Newspeg to create vertical topic pages on the fly, curating their own content and stories from other sources. We're looking forward to seeing that happen, and to working with publishers to help customize and brand those pages and to find other interesting uses for the platform.

All that said, Newspeg still is a bit of an experiment, a work in progress. We can't wait to see how people use it, what they find, and what they tell us about how we can improve the experience.

So please try it out. Peg a few stories (and come back tomorrow and peg more!), add the Peg It button to your browser, give us feedback, tell your friends. We hope Newspeg will give you a new way to navigate the rushing river of news.


“Audience First” and Other Lessons in Disruptive Innovation

When I arrived at the Lawrence Journal-World earlier this month, the first thing I told the staff was that we needed to think "audience first." Not just digital first; we had to consider every possible way that our audiences wanted to receive information from us–the Web, mobile, social, print, feeds, e-mail, whatever—and deliver news, info and advertising through those channels in a high-quality, revenue-producing form. After a few weeks, the excellent Journal-World staff is probably already getting sick of me preaching "audience-first." But now comes a new preacher with the same message, and more.

Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton M. Christensen is revered by innovative and entrepreneurial business thinkers for his legendary book, The Innovator's Dilemma, which explores how existing businesses almost invariably are vulnerable to being blindsided by upstart competitors that disrupt and upend their industries. (You may have noticed something like that happening in the news business lately, no?) It's probably the single most influential and important business book of the past 15 years. All of us who've taught entrepreneurship and innovation have used it as a basic text.

Now Christensen and a couple of colleagues have turned their attention to the news business, with an important, fascinating piece in the new issue of Nieman Reports entitled "Breaking News: Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism." It's a must read—maybe the most insightful, important article on the future of the news business since Clay Shirky's legendary "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" in 2009.

Christensen's treatise is long and a bit business school-like. But it's worth sitting down with and absorbing if you care about the future of news and the business models that must support it. Not only does he make a strong argument about "audience first"—and what to do about it—but he explores real-world examples of how news organizations and others are restructuring and rethinking what they do to foster innovation and ensure their future. This is exactly the kind of restructuring and rethinking we're embarking on in Lawrence to become truly "audience first" and find a model for a successful local news organization. Christensen's article is like reading the recipe.

Go read the the whole thing. But I'll leave you with the conclusion, which sums it up well:

The reason that innovation often seems to be so difficult for established newsrooms is that, though they employ highly capable people, they are working within organizational structures whose processes and priorities weren't designed for the task at hand. 

Creating an innovative newsroom environment means looking within the existing value network and beyond traditional business models to discover new experiences for audiences, then realigning your resources, processes and priorities to embrace these disruptions. 

While there is no one panacea to replace the traditional business models that news organizations relied upon for half a century, these recommendations taken in aggregate provide a framework for an emergent strategy to take hold. Innovation requires courageous leadership, a clearly articulated vision, and the strength to stay the course.

Postscript: The great Andrew Sullivan, who blogs for the Daily Beast, which just announced that it will cease publication of the print version of Newsweek at the end of this year, has some very interesting thoughts on the need to hasten the transition from print to digital.

Falling Off the Wagon—And Into the Land of Oz

I started the Recovering Journalist blog six years ago because I believe strongly that the future of journalism involves a lot more than simply journalism. To be a complete journalist, it has become just as important to understand and appreciate the business of journalism. So I styled myself the Recovering Journalist and opined away on the state of the journalism business over the past few years—just as it hit a precipitous decline. It's been quite a ride.

Now, however, the time has come for the Recovering Journalist to fall off the wagon and return to journalism—albeit equipped with the philosophy and knowledge that fed this blog and my concurrent career as an entrepreneur, consultant and professor.

Beginning next month, I'll be serving as Vice President of Content for The World Company, the parent of the Lawrence Journal-World and other newspapers, in Kansas and surrounding states. This puts me in day-to-day leadership of the news operations of daily and weekly newspapers and their online operations—a full-blown return to journalism as it's practiced circa 2012.

Obviously, the worlds of journalism and news are very, very different than they were when I left daily journalism (with occasional return visits) 20 years ago. The Internet has changed everything; news is now social and participatory and interactive and a lot of other things; traditional business models for news are in shambles. These are the sorts of challenges I've been thinking about and working on for the past 20 years and writing about here for the past six years. Now it's time to apply all of that thinking to bringing a traditional newspaper operation into the new age.

In Lawrence, we have a tremendous head start: the Journal-World and associated sites such as have been leaders in creating new models for journalism and new business models for news for the better part of a decade, under the ambitious, visionary leadership of the Simons family and pioneers such as Rob Curley and Adrian Holovaty. Very few other newspaper companies have been as progressive and forward-thinking. But as the Journal-World, like other papers, continues to struggle with the stark new realities of the journalism business, it's time to take the pace of innovation to the next level. That's what the Simons family and COO Suzanne Schlicht have hired me to do.

What does all that mean? It's too early to say in much detail. But it means being not just "digital first" but audience first: delivering news, information and advertising to audiences at high quality in whatever form the audience wants it—from print to online to mobile to e-mail to social networks to tablets. It means building editorial products backed by strong business models that support good journalism. It means helping newsrooms rethink the way they do everything to best serve their audiences. It means building strong partnerships with college journalism departments, like the excellent one at the nearby University of Kansas. And so much more.

I'm excited to get this opportunity to, well, put my money where my mouth has been. As a member in good standing of the Jarvis/Shirky/Rosen Future of News coven, I've been bloviating about this stuff for years, as well as teaching it and helping to start and nurture companies that have attempted to capitalize on the change swirling around the news business (another of those startups is in the oven, almost ready to go–watch this space).

Now I get to put all that theory and thinking into action, in search of a model that provides great local journalism to the people in and around Lawrence for years to come, and maybe, just maybe, providing an example that can be used elsewhere—hopefully many elsewheres.

What will become of the Recovering Journalist blog? Well, it's been in semi-retirement for a while anyway, and now the name seems quaintly inappropriate for an off-the-wagon journalist who's no longer in true recovery. I may return here periodically; I may pop up somewhere else. But I've got so much work ahead of me in my new day job that I can scarcely imagine having time to blog much.

Instead, please watch what we do on,, and our various other products in the coming months and years. I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback as we—and I—head into this great new adventure, turning theory into practice.

The ruby slippers are packed, Toto's in his bicycle basket and the GPS is pointing down the yellow brick road. The Recovering Journalist is headed to Kansas—and hopefully the Wonderful World of Oz. (This time, please do pay attention to the man behind the curtain!)

A Vision for the Future of Newspapers—20 Years Ago

It's becoming hard to remember life before digital news. We now take for granted instantaneous availability of news and information on devices ranging from desktop PCs to tablets to smartphones. We now break news, add commentary and interact with audiences on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Google has put access to an unimaginable collection of knowledge at our fingertips. The iPhone and Android have put a virtual newsroom—with writing, photo, video, Web research and communications capabilities—into our pockets. We gasp at the inexorable decline of the business models of once-mighty traditional media corporations, hollowing out newsrooms and throwing thousands of people out of once-secure jobs.

In short, we're living through one of the most remarkable revolutions in history, the complete remaking of how we cover and consume news and information. It's difficult to remember things the way they were.

But some of us were there when that revolution began. And what a long, strange trip it's been.

Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple's CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word "multimedia."

What Kaiser heard at the conference sounded to him—a decidedly non-techie print newsman whose expertise was mostly in international affairs—like science fiction. On the long flight home, he wrote a seven-page memo to Washington Post Publisher Don Graham and other top executives at the paper about what he'd seen and heard—and what he thought The Post should do about it. (How much have things changed? Bob wrote his first draft in longhand, on a legal pad; I'm writing this on an iPad.)

The Kaiser memo, 20 years old this month, is a striking document, even today. (With Bob's kind permission, it's publicly available here, as a PDF, for the first time.) It shows a first-class mind wrapping itself around a topic—and a future—that was completely new and foreign. A lot of what Bob wrote about seems almost quaint now, but remember: this was 1992, when "going online" meant connecting to services like Compuserve and Prodigy via slow, squeaky dial-up modems. PCs had just made a transition to color screens, laptops were still a novelty, cellular phones were rarer (and bricklike) and nobody but Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web.

To newspaper veteran Kaiser—and just about anybody else—what was discussed at the Apple-sponsored conference on the future of multimedia and technology was fantastic. He wrote Graham:

I was taken aback by predictions at the conference about the next stage of the computer revolution. It was offered as an indisputable fact that the rate of technological advancement is actually increasing. Dave Nagel, the impressive head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, predicted “the three billions” would be a reality by the end of this decade: relatively cheap personal computers with a billion bits of memory (60 million is common today), with microprocessors that can process a billion instructions per second (vs. about 50 million today) that can transmit data to other computers at a billion bits per second (vs. 15-20 million today). At that point the PC will be a virtual supercomputer, and the easy transmission and storage of large quantities of text, moving and still pictures, graphics, etc., will be a reality. Eight years from now.

(Yep, that all happened, pretty much on schedule—and now has been vastly surpassed.) 

I asked many purported wizards at the conference if they thought Nagel was being overoptimistic. None thought so. The machines he envisioned will have the power to become vastly more user-friendly than today’s PC’s. They will probably be able to take voice instructions, and read commands written by hand or an electronic notepad, or right on the screen. None of this is science fiction — it’s just around the corner.

(Most of that has happened too, though not all—I'm looking at you, Siri—but nobody back then quite foresaw smartphones, Google or Facebook, either.)

The world is changing with amazing speed, and we need to pay close attention to what is happening. … No one in our business has yet launched a really impressive or successful electronic product, but someone surely will. I’d bet it will happen rather soon. The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We’ll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it. And we can.

Brave words—and ultimately a bit too optimistic—but an important call to arms. Kaiser suggested to Graham that The Post embark ASAP on two daring R&D projects: an electronic classifieds service (alas, craigslist eventually won that race while the Post and others were still figuring out how to get going) and an electronic newspaper. Of the latter, Kaiser wrote:

Many at the conference talked about the way we tend to use new media first to replicate the products produced by old media — so early TV consisted of visible radio shows, for example. With this in mind, our electronic Post should be thought of not as a newspaper on a screen, but (perhaps) as a computer game converted to a serious purpose. In other words, it should be a computer product.

That last was an important and smart distinction, which unfortunately got a bit lost in the rush over the next few years to paste newspapers onto a screen rather than to truly think of them as computer products, in Kaiser's apt words. But his instincts and vision were spot on.

As it happened, I was covering technology for The Post in 1992, and Kaiser shared his memo with me shortly after he sent it to Graham. I was thunderstruck. I remember walking across the newsroom from his office, reading the memo and becoming more and more excited with every step. I covered this stuff; I understood the importance of what he'd heard and prophesied; and I was thrilled that somebody in senior management at the Post "got it," as techies were fond of saying.

Moreover, I thought I knew how to bring Kaiser's vision to life.

I spent the next few days–a gorgeous late-August Washington weekend—holed up in my basement slaving over my Macintosh LC. Using Apple's then-revolutionary (and now late and lamented) HyperCard software, I built a prototype electronic newspaper that, as Kaiser had envisioned—and as much as my crude programming skills could manage—was a "computer product."

Cheekily named PostCard, in tribute to its Washington Post and HyperCard parentage, it was, yeah, a newspaper on a screen. But it had crude animations, soundbites (recorded from TV) to accompany some stories, and other primitive multimedia tricks. Computer graphics were so unsophisticated then that I couldn't even include photos on the front page, and my design skills weren’t great—but here's what one glimpse of newspaper future looked like 20 years ago:

Postcard (early version) home page

I loaded PostCard onto my new PowerBook 140 (still a black and white screen) and brought it to work that Monday. “This is it!” Kaiser said excitedly when he saw it. "This is exactly what I was talking about in my memo." Within a couple days I essentially had a new job: as the Post's in-house digital media "futurologist," as Don Graham dubbed me.

Over the next couple of years we continued developing PostCard and many other products as testbeds for all sorts of ideas about the future of media. Again, the Web didn't exist yet, broadband was a dream, and the tools were very crude. But working on our own and in partnership with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, we developed a host of prototypes and concepts that pointed toward the digital future. One idea we played with looked a bit like what Groupon came up with nearly two decades later; we had hyperlocal concepts long before that word even existed. We even built versions of The Washington Post that ran on Newton, Apple's then-revolutionary handheld computer, a precursor to the iPhone and iPad. It was a time of “anything goes” experimentation.

Postcard, with help from engineers at a secret Apple media lab in Boulder, Colo., evolved into a much slicker product over the next year or two, adding prototypical interactive advertising, text-to-speech features, personalized news, built-in news games, searchable classifieds and stock tables, online restaurant reservations and ordering and a vision for electronic sports ticketing, along with video and improved design and functionality. 

Postcard-Front Page

As someone said when they saw PostCard a few years later, "It looks like the Web." Except that, in those early days of experimentation, the Web didn't really exist yet. And we hadn't seen it.

We were learning quickly how digital media differed from print. We still had no real idea of how we would deliver these whizbang products to anybody—the Internet wasn't really ready for primetime yet and our mutimedia visions bumped up against pre-broadband reality—but PostCard was a great vehicle to use to demo the future. Legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee, seeing PostCard presented at a Post company board meeting and grasping how it could be used to provide all sorts of contextual and supplemental content to support news stories, growled, "My God, it will take all day to read this thing." I think that was a compliment. Shortly after, the Post's board created a new division of the company to build digital products, the beginning of hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate spending to chase the vision of the future that Kaiser had written about and I had crudely prototyped.

We certainly weren't the only ones in the news industry doing these sorts of experiments. The Wall Street Journal had its own HyperCard-based experimental newspaper. CNN had an amazing multimedia CD-ROM news prototype. Knight Ridder's Roger Fidler, working in a lab literally next door to Apple's Boulder office, had a rudimentary but fascinating prototype of a newspaper-tablet computer. (Although the Fidler "tablet" consisted mainly of a printed page pasted on a board, accompanied by a clever video simulation, elements of it anticipated the iPad so presciently that it has become a flashpoint in the ongoing Apple-Samsung patent litigation over who first came up with the idea for an iPad-like tablet.) Others, notably the San Jose Mercury News, were starting to experiment with building actual online news products on platforms like AOL.

We all know how digital media history played itself out after these heady early years. These early experiments coalesced into newspaper Web sites in the mid-90s— went live in 1996—and ran smack into more nimble, creative challengers like Google, craigslist and many others.

Overly cautious newspaper managers, convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, failed to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium. They simply didn't innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late. One of Kaiser's most accurate prophecies, alas, was a dire warning near the beginning of his memo: "We do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured—or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism."

Mistakes were made, and they were doozies. The Washington Post, for its part, callously passed on opportunities to be an early investor in the likes of AOL, Netscape, eBay and Google. Oops—and there were similar horror stories inside all big newspaper companies. The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.

(Contrary to popular myth, by the way, there was no "original sin" of newspapers somehow failing to think to charge subscriptions for online editions in those early days: in fact, we talked about paid-content models all the time, and Kaiser’s memo even suggested that money could be made selling individual stories to thousands of readers for pennies apiece. Indeed, many early newspaper online products and sites, including The Post's first online service, Digital Ink, did charge for access. But they ran up against technological barriers and audience resistance that generally made subscriptions unworkable. The alternative was the old newspaper revenue fallback, advertising, which proved to be less than effective because of the end of media scarcity and competition from the likes of Google, craigslist and many others for the ad dollars newspapers used to dominate. Believe me, if we could have figured out to get people to pay us directly for digital news back in the early days, we would have done it.)

Where are we, 20 years after Bob Kaiser's memo and the creation of the Postcard prototype in August 1992? We all know the answer to that. Newspaper Web sites, while popular, still aren't fully "computer products." Their innovation has generally stalled—and is now being further outpaced by the advent of social media and mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones. The best ideas in newsgathering, storytelling, audience engagement, distribution and advertising are mostly coming from outside the traditional news business. Print circulation and ad revenue are down dramatically at most papers. Staffing has been cut; quality is on the decline.

And even though online newspaper audiences are far larger than their print counterparts, monetizing those audiences has proven extremely difficult—though Google and others have done it far better than newspapers. In sum, we're still grappling with the titanic changes that Bob Kaiser identified in his memo 20 years ago.

For my part, that memo changed my life: I've had the privilege of spending the past 20 years trying to figure out how to bring those visions of the digital media future to reality, as an entrepreneur, consultant and executive. It's been a wild, thrilling ride, which I've chronicled periodically on this blog. And for the past 20 years I've carried Bob Kaiser's memo with me as inspiration—first, as a dog-eared copy in my briefcase; more recently as a digital copy on my iPad and iPhone. As a glimpse into the roots of the adventure the newspaper business has been on for the past two decades, it remains a remarkable document.



The Chronology of Newspaper-Think

I recently worked on a project that involved examining the history of the newpaper industry's interaction with the challenges of the digital revolution and innovation over the past 20 years. Painful memories, for those of us who were there from the start—we've seen a lot of self-inflicted wounds and crappy executives. And I realized that the chronology of the past couple of decades of newspaper-think boils down to a few key milestones (or is it millstones?) that go something like this:

1995: This Internet thing? Just a fad. The CB radio of the '90s.

1998: Oh wow–we may have missed the boat on the Internet.

2000: Ha! We were right! Just a fad! Phew! All is well!

2005: Are newspapers a great business, or what??

2008: Oh shit

2012: Help! We'll do whatever you tell us to do! Just make it stop!!

It's not going to stop, of course. The change going on right now in the news business is the greatest story we'll ever see up close—the complete transformation of an industry. But unless newspaper leaderships break out of this cycle of naivete and arrogance and fear, pronto, the next entry in my chronology may be R.I.P.


More Must Reads

I started to write a post inspired by John Paton's terrific "Old Dogs, New Tricks and Crappy Newspaper Executives" speech last week (money quote: “Crappy newspaper executives are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than any changes wrought by the Internet.”), but realized that John railed against the newspaper industry's self-inflicted wounds far better than I could. Go read it.

You should also check out John Robinson's post asking newspaper execs to ask themselves, truthfully, "Has your newspaper improved in the past 10 years?" Sadly, we all know the answer to that one. And Paton's speech provides some prescriptions for change—if it's not too late.

One questionable prescription: The non-profit route as a magic bullet (er. the intentionally non-profit route). Jeff Jarvis, looking at the implosions of the Bay Citizen and Chicago News Cooperative, pretty much demolishes that wishful thinking. As I say to my media entrepreneurship students, non-profit is a tax status, not a business model. Many journalists have somehow managed to convince themselves otherwise. As Jeff says, painfully accurately, "The problem is that journalists don’t know shit about business. Culturally, they don’t want to." That has to change, pronto, or newspapers continue to get saddled with the kind of crappy executives and non-visionary thinking that John Paton is talking about

Must Reads

Where have I been? Well, let's just say I got tired of saying many of the same things over and over. Besides, other people sometimes say them much better. Two cases in point today:

John Robinson, recently departed editor of the Greensboro News & Record and all-around smart, good guy, has gotten even smarter now that he's gotten some distance and perspective from his former job. (Same thing happened to John Temple.) He's blogging good suggestions on how newspapers can make themselves more relevant to and trusted by their communities, quickly and easily. Obvious stuff—except, as John admits, it wasn't so obvious until he got away from the daily grind.

The great Clay Shirky, who seems to have perfect pitch for understanding, explaining and analyzing the changes roiling the newspaper industry, takes on paywalls, er, online subscription models—and how they're changing the news business in many subtle, largely unrealized ways. It's very provocative stuff—there's too much of it even to pick out a representative quote. Go read it!

Newspaper Next, Five Years Later

Everybody in the newspaper business needs to read and think hard about Justin Ellis' Nieman Lab post mortem of the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project from 2006.

Then ask yourself: Why are you still thinking about it as the "newspaper" business? Because that means you weren't paying enough attention.

Newspaper Next had its flaws, principally that it didn't go far enough in its "blueprint for transformation." (At the time, Jeff Jarvis correctly carped, "the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats.") But it still was a manifesto for change in a hidebound industry that was—and sadly, still is—staunchly resisting transformation.

As Ellis notes, even Newspaper Next's fairly timid recommendations had limited effect, further blunted by what he describes as newspapers' "near-extinction level event in 2008" (I wasn't aware it was limited to 2008—it's still going on!). The industry's dire financial problems and the massive staff cuts that followed choked off just about any of the kind of creative thinking about new products that Newspaper Next recommended.

As a result, five years on, newspapers haven't taken the kind of bold steps that Newspaper Next—much less bolder visionaries like Jarvis—prescribed for them. There's been a lot of talk, and too little action by an industry still gripped by fear of change, multiplied by unprecedented financial woes. The newspaper of 2011 isn't really radically different from the newspaper of 2006. Just thinner. Meantime, rivals like Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and the mobile revolution portended by the iPhone have flourished in the same period. At best, newspapers are playing catch-up—from farther and farther behind.

Worse, there have been unfortunate rollbacks of the sorts of interesting projects that Newspaper Next advocated, like Gannett's idiotic and ham-handed snuffing of the once-excellent MomsLikeMe initiative a couple weeks ago. John Paton, with his Digital First initiative at Journal Register and now the MediaNews properties, is doing by far the most interesting work in the field, but its results remain to be seen, and it feels too little too late. The time to act was long before Newspaper Next's 2006 manifesto.

Steve Buttry, part of Paton's Digital First team and an architect of Newspaper Next, has his own reflections on the project's legacy; he's disappointed, too. You should also read James Rainey's LA Times' analysis of the Philadelphia Inquirer's ill-fated effort to sell its own custom tablet, which on one hand is the sort of bold move Newspaper Next might have been applauded, but on the other hand was so ill-timed and botched that it just looks boneheaded. ZDNet's "How Not to Launch a Custom Tablet" story sums up the Philly fiasco nicely.

Newspapers, as Jarvis said five years ago (and before), don't need small experiments and test projects and niche products. They need rethinking from the ground up, with every single facet of the product and business severely questioned and cold-bloodedly scrapped if they're found wanting, with creative new products and approaches put in their place. Do you need every single feature you're stuffing into the paper? Do you need to print every day of the week? Are you selling to the right advertisers? Are your readers moving inexorably to the Web while you're still stubbornly trying to keep them on a printed product? (Hint: yes) These are all fundamental, foundational questions that newspaper managements need to be asking themselves (and their advertisers and readers), then truly listening to the answers and acting on them. That's what Newspaper Next, at its heart, was trying to encourage.

Jarvis was right five years ago, and he's even more right today: Blow up the barge. Build new boats.

I'll double down on what I said at the beginning: Still think you're in the "newspaper" business? Then you're part of the problem.

American Newspapers: Rise and Fall

There's a fascinating piece of data visualization here, done by a group of Stanford researchers, tracing the rise of the American newspaper, and its march west, beginning in 1690. The visualization, which plots 140,000 U.S. newspapers, continues through today, so you can see the number of papers diminishing, as well, over the past couple of decades.

Newspaper map

Good stuff, and sort of reminiscent of the animated map tracing the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane's media empire in the fictional "News on the March" newsreel in Citizen Kane (at the 2:30 and 7:10 mark, but watch the whole thing, because it's great cinema!).