Google Makes News (Better). Again

While everybody's patting themselves on the back today over the Pulitzers' look at journalism's past, news industry "scourge" Google is once again inventing journalism's future. Take a gander at the newest toy out of Google Labs, the Google News Timeline:

Timeline

What this nifty little gadget does is pull together the top stories of the past few days (or weeks or months—it's configurable, natch) and displays them in, yes, a timeline. It's a nice at-a-glance way to catch up on what's been going on in the world (because most readers aren't up-to-the-minute news junkies like journos are). Very cool—and a clever example of news packaging.

Most importantly, it's quite simple, and something similar probably could have been developed by any smart news organization. That it came from Google, instead, says volumes about the smarts of news organizations these days.

PS: More in the same vein from Mathew Ingram at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Hey AP: Story Embargoes are SO Last Century

Just saw this in my Yahoo Entertainment AP RSS feed, timestamped 9:48 pm EDT:

AP – Advisory: The NASA Colbert story is embargoed until 11:10 p.m. EDT and will be resent at that time.

Oops. Because this appeared in my Yahoo Entertainment AP RSS feed at 8:11 pm EDT:

NEW YORK – One small step for NASA, one giant running leap for Stephen Colbert.

NASA announced Tuesday that it won't name a room in the international space station after the comedian. Instead, it has named a treadmill after him.

Um, hello, AP? In the modern world, you can't take back a broken embargo quite that easily. Once you've released a story onto the Internets, it's out there for everybody to see. You know, like a mistaken e-mail. (And if you weren't so busy feuding with The Google, maybe they could help you with that type of error.) 

In the old days, AP would make embargo slips like this occasionally, but since its wires appeared only in newsrooms, it was easy to take it back: You just sent out an advisory to newspaper members asking them not to use the story. You know, kind of like the advisory shown above. Alas, that doesn't really work, anymore. Got that?

And sheesh, the AP embargoed a story about naming a treadmill after a comedian?? No wonder they tried to withdraw it!

Laid Off? 10 Tips For Suddenly Unemployed Journalists

According to the excellent (if depressing) PaperCuts newspaper layoffs tracker, more than 20,000 jobs have been cut from American newspapers since the beginning of 2008—more than 3,500 in the past two months. That quickening trend is going to continue as the industry's spiral worsens and more newsrooms are cut back and/or papers close.

The newspaper crisis really hits home, of course, when it's your job that's cut. There are waves of guilt, shame, anger, depression and fear that come fast and furious. Questions abound. What do I tell my family? How will I pay my bills? How will I find a new job in this economy? Was it something that I did, or didn't do? You'll go through all of this and more when you're laid off.

I've been laid off and I've had to lay people off, and it's an understatement to say that it's not easy for anyone. But there are some things you can and should do to get a grip on the situation and position yourself to move on to the next phase of your life. 

Here are 10 tips for suddenly unemployed journalists. Nothing can immediately take away the pain and anxiety that you're feeling, but hopefully these will help you understand that your situation is not unique and that you'll be able to get through this. And maybe it will get you thinking about next steps.

  1. Don't freak out–This is hard to hear. "I just lost my job, for chrissakes!" Yes, you did. But don't beat yourself up about it. Given the state of the news business these days, a layoff is hardly your fault–it's a failure by your ex-employer. Don't succumb to depression or go into a funk. Get to work immediately getting your act together and finding a new job. And you're going to quickly find out that you're hardly alone—and I don't just mean those 20,000 other newspaper jobs lost since the beginning of last year. Many friends will come forward to tell you that they've been laid off or fired during their careers. They've just never told you until now. It's an unfortunate part of life, and they went through it and survived. So have millions of others. So will you. 
  2. Get your finances in order—Hopefully, you saw the industry faltering and began putting money away for this rainy day. Even if you didn't, look hard at ways to conserve money and get by with less. Sorry, you might have to give up that daily Starbucks for a while, and cut way down on going out. And it's time to finally learn Quicken and how it can help you manage your finances. Take care of yourself, too: Spend some time at the gym.
  3. Apply for unemployment—Your employer paid into the unemployment pool, and now it's time for you to take advantage of it. It's no shame, it's not welfare–it's there precisely for this reason. Start collecting it–it's a small but essential flow of cash that can run for several months.
  4. Network like crazy—Get in touch with everybody you know who might be able to help you. Ask them to refer you to others they know. Then do it again, and again. If you're a good reporter, you know the drill–it's very similar to working a beat—persistence and repetition pay off. You've got to regularly let people know that you're available. Out of sight, out of mind is a real problem when you're in the job market, and you never know when you'll contact somebody who just happened to be looking for somebody with your skills. If you don't do it, it won't happen for you. Plus, it's an excuse to get out of the house for to get together with other people.
  5. Get on Facebook and LinkedIn—These are the modern forms of networking. If you're not already on these essential social networks, register for accounts (it takes seconds), start "friending" people and learn how to use them to connect with others. Again, that old colleague you hadn't thought about in years until you reconnected on Facebook could have a job lead for you. In addition, familiarity with Facebook is a good way to start understanding some of the leading edge principles in new media. It also can be lots of fun.
  6. Expand your new media horizons—And not just Facebook. Spend some time getting to know and using things like Twitter, Flickr and all those other strange names you've heard about but never really paid attention to. Getting up to speed on these will greatly enhance your knowledge of new media, and that's going to be essential to keeping your journalism career going. Your print skills will only take you so far. You can no longer pay lip service to new media–dive in. And no, you don't need to learn HTML or any computer languages. Really. It's not that scary. But it doesn't hurt to take some classes at a local community college or even the Apple Store to learn about things like Photoshop, video production or, yes, HTML. Don't be intimidated. Getting comfortable with those things—and it's easier than you think—will enhance your skills and make you much more marketable. (Gina Chen's blog is a good resource for helping journalists understand the new media world.)
  7. Start a blog—If you're not blogging already, start, immediately. Again, it's really easy and gets you into the new media milieu. If nothing else, it's a good way to keep your writing chops sharp. You can blog about just about anything, but here's a thought: Why not be really entrepreneurial and start a blog about your old beat, or about some niche topic that you think is undercovered. Keep at it, and over time, you may find your blog becoming a key to your next job.
  8. Look beyond journalism for your next job—Journalists have investigative, organization, storytelling, writing and editing skills that are taken for granted in newsrooms but are seen as rare and valuable in other fields. Broaden your range of possibilities by thinking about a new career outside of journalism. I wrote about that at length a while back in a post called Life After Journalism. Check that out for ideas.
  9. Don't be afraid to ask for help—Misplaced pride can hurt you. Please don't be embarrassed by what happened to you. Don't let your self-confidence crumble (though it's easy to understand why it would be shaken). People want to help; reach out whenever you can and ask them for help. It's not a sign of weakness. And by the way: These are the times when you really find out who your friends are. You'll treasure them forever for what they do for you.  
  10. Take a deep breath—Again, don't freak out. You're going to get through this. If you can hack it financially, take some time for yourself before plunging into finding a new job. You've been through one of life's most traumatic experiences (no doubt on the stressful heels of months or years of uncertainty and fear in your newsroom). It's going to take you some time to emotionally recover, in ways you won't grasp for years. If you can get away and take some time off to decompress, do it. It will really help your mental health and ability to move forward. And you may never get a chance again to take a mid-career break like this, for yourself or to spend time with your family.
Good luck. 

R.I.P. Jim Bellows

I never knew or had the privilege of working for Jim Bellows, but I was fortunate to be a regular reader of his mid-'70s Washington Star and became a total fan. He was the kind of newspaper editor they just don't make anymore, a bold, creative, aggressive leader who wasn't afraid to tweak anybody in print. In fact, he seemed to revel in such tweaking, and in playing the underdog to more powerful competitors. His newspapers had real personalities and attitude, something you just don't see these days—and probably a reason why newspapers are losing readers.

As editor of The Star, Bellows ran scrappy opposition to the bigger, more powerful Washington Post, fanning a newspaper war that was endlessly entertaining (I still have an "I Followed Doonesbury to The Washington Star" bumper sticker pinned up over my desk, in fact, a souvenir of a key battle in this war). Underfunded and understaffed, the Star delighted in hassling the Post every way it possibly could, making both papers better in the process.

These days, when we barely have one-newspaper towns, it's hard to remember how competitive (and wonderful) great two-newspaper towns could be, and Bellows was a master of the game, never letting up on his crosstown rival as editor at the Star, the New York Herald Tribune and Los Angeles Herald Examiner. No wonder his autobiography was titled "The Last Editor: How I Saved The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency." He didn't (directly!) edit those three papers–but he kept them on their toes through relentless, creative and resourceful competition.

Three more examples of Bellows' distinctive style that I remember offhand:
  • When he suspected that The Washington Post was lifting a syndicated item from the Star (long story!), he tinkered with the first letters of the first few paragraphs to that they spelled out something like "Hello Ben," to tweak rival Ben Bradlee—who was thus caught redhanded when the Post reproduced the altered copy verbatim. Gotcha!
  • The Washington Star's gloriously irreverent Ear gossip column, written by Diana McLellan, which seemed to be mostly about the Post (aka "O.P." or "the Other Paper"), Bradlee and Sally Quinn (aka "The Fun Couple"). It was endlessly entertaining, a daily soap opera of high life in Washington. (Come to think of it, I think Bellows' Star also ran a daily soap opera feature that was mostly a thinly veiled insider version of life at the Post. Great stuff.) When the Star died in 1981 (post-Bellows), the Ear—and Doonesbury—moved to the Post, but it was never the same.
  • What may have been Bellows' greatest moment, which happened when he was editing the Los Angeles Herald Examiner: In 1979, President Jimmy Carter was allegedly attacked by a crazed rabbit while out on a solo fishing trip. Not surprisingly, the story was a little hard to believe, especially when the White House was unable to produce a photo of said rabid rabbit. Bellows had the solution: He ran a large blank rectangle on the front page of the Herald Examiner, above the fold, with a tiny caption that said something like, "This space reserved for photo of rabbit when it is released by the White House." Absolutely hilarious—the best use of white space on a newspaper front page ever. I still have a copy somewhere.
It wasn't all gags–Bellows papers were also damn good, doing more with less than any of his larger competitors. After leaving newspapers, Bellows went on to help turn Entertainment Weekly into a TV juggernaut, and he even brought smarts and personality to proto-Internet companies Prodigy and Excite as an executive and editor. 

Bellows died today, at age 86, in Los Angeles, and the dwindling list of great living editors (still headed by Bradlee) is reduced by one. Alas, in today's constricted, corporate, cash-strapped newsrooms, we won't be seeing his likes again. But some of his scrappiness and pizzazz will live on in blogs and other new media. I sure hope so.

“They Hate Us Out There”

A Congressman–a Democratic Congressman, at that–has given public voice to something a lot of journalists don't want to know about or talk about: A large number of people are actively rooting for newspapers and other media to die horrible deaths.

Rep. Jared Polis (D.-Colo.) said this about the closing of the Rocky Mountain News at a political meeting this week: "I have to say, that when we say, 'Who killed the Rocky Mountain News,' we're all part of it, for better or worse, and I argue it's mostly for the better. … The media is dead, and long live the new media, which is all of us."

Polis' remarks made Romenesko, and drew an angry retort from Atlantic magazine's Jeff Goldberg, who titled his post, "Go to Hell, Jared Polis." But about the only thing remarkable about Polis' inflammatory comments were that they came from a Democrat. 

Over on the other side of the political aisle, there's a whole cadre of people passionately rooting for the death of media outlets they see as liberally biased. And the kinds of things they say make Polis look positively temperate.

Want a taste? Jump into any of the discussions here, at FreeRepublic.com, one of the leading right-wing Web sites. A regular feature called "Dinosaur Media Death Watch" chronicles every development in the decline of the journalism business in detail that surpasses even Romenesko–except that these dispatches are accompanied by unalloyed glee. The standard comment about newspaper layoffs or closings is something along the lines of "good riddance." You'll see similar sentiments expressed at other conservative sites. It's nasty stuff.

In the FreeRepublic view of the media world, newspapers are dying–and should die–because they're inaccurate, too liberal and too arrogant. These folks believe, in fact, that those alleged failings are driving readers and advertisers away, causing newspaper problems that go far beyond the real factors like Internet competition, the decline of classifieds and the economy. Like Polis, they revel in how alternative formats like blogs are causing problems for traditional media. 

To journalists, this is sort of bizarro world. But it's virulent in certain quarters, and Polis' unfortunate remarks are just one facet of it. While some of us think the existing newspaper business model is fatally flawed, we love journalism and we're working hard along with a lot of other good people to transition the media business to something more sustainable. But there are probably just as many–or more–people rooting heartily for papers and journalism to fail, for political reasons.

Twenty-five years ago, a smart professor and editor of mine named Charles "Puff" Puffenbarger told me something about news audiences that I'll always remember: "They hate us out there." It appears that's true more now than ever.

The Future is Now

This was the week that was:

  • The owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News filed for bankruptcy protection; so did Journal Register Co.
  • Hearst said it would close the San Francisco Chronicle if it cannot drastically cut costs or find a buyer.
  • The Rocky Mountain News ended publication after nearly 150 years.
  • The American Society of Newspaper Editors canceled its annual convention because of lack of attendance.

This was the week that was–the beginning of the end. Newspapers, as we know them, are dead.

I know a lot of people don't want to read that, and will rise up and argue that millions of papers are still sold every day, and thousands of people work hard to put them out, and millions of people read them, and countless advertisers still pay to be in them, and blah blah blah, but sorry: the printed newspaper, full of static, day-old news, is an anachronistic product, declining in popularity and value. Their Web sites, sorry, aren't much better.

Don't believe me? Look again at what happened last week, when the daily drumbeat of bad industry news was louder than ever (and hardly the last of the tremors to rock the industry). 

Look at the declines in readership, revenue and stock market value of newspapers and the companies that own them. Already inexorable, hastened by the slump in the economy, they're falling off a cliff. And they ain't coming back, no matter how many people wish that what's happening is merely cyclical, and someday, some way, those auto and retail and real estate advertises will come back, by gum, and so will readers, especially those young ones, and Wall Street will love us again. Not gonna happen.

Again: Newspapers, as we know them, are dead. Some will live on in a shadow of their current form; others, at the low end of the journalistic totem pole (e.g. community weeklies) will outlast their larger cousins. But the basic idea of what a newspaper is, that we all grew up with, is outdated, outmoded and soon to be defunct.

Rather than argue that, or mourn some romantic notion of what a newspaper was, we need to begin focusing now, right now, on what comes next. 

How will people find out what's going on around them when newspapers, in the next few months, wither and die? What will be the replacement? We're already seeing examples of the next-generation news and information product, in the Web, in blogs, in advertising competitors like craigslist and Monster and eBay, in information-finders like Google, in new local players like Yelp, in new ways to connect people and information like Twitter and Facebook.

The replacement for newspapers needs to be a melting pot of all of those things and more, a rich stew of information, connection, convenience, context, analysis, community, multimedia and many other things. We've not seen anything like that amalgam yet. But I think we can start to sketch what it might look like.

The news, information, advertising and interaction products that replace newspapers will vaguely resemble newspapers, but only superficially. They'll be online-centric products, taking advantage of all of the tools the Web (and mobile distribution) offers, rather than attempting to replicate their printed predecessors–a fatal and chronic mistake. They'll be highly participatory, providing opportunities for audience members to talk back, talk among themselves, freely exchange information they find, and rely on professional journalists to help them sort out the more thorny topics. The one-way lecture that we now know as news is going to be history; non-relevant news (e.g foreign and national reports available widely elsewhere) will be banished; information and advertising will be highly targeted to the audience's needs and desires.

Some particulars of these next-generation products:
  • Local, local, local–The last truly defensible news franchise is highly targeted local coverage. There are readers and advertisers for hyperlocal government, school and crime and sports news, local entertainment reviews and other information.
  • Niches–Some of these new products will cover demographic or subject niches, rather than (or in addition to) traditionally defined geographies. Think focused local sports, for starters.
  • User-generated content–Let the audience members help out. They know things journalists will never get to. Give them a forum to share and talk about what they know.
  • Professional content and curation–It's not all amateur hour. Put pros on key beats and, above all, get those journalists interacting constantly with readers to find out what's really important to the community.
  • Aggregation–Jeff Jarvis said it best: Do what you do best and link to the rest. There's lots of content out there to aggregate. Be your audience's guide to the best stuff. (Howard Owens has an excellent primer on aggregation types, btw.)
  • Databases–Find new ways to collect, collate and present information. Everyblock- and CinciNavigator-style info-maps are a good way to start. News and information don't have to always be presented in inverted-pyramid text formats. Really.
  • Discussions, comments and forums–Get the readers participating, talking, sharing. The next-generation information product should be a beehive of community conversation.
  • Social tools–Leverage Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and the rest to bring together audiences that already have connections to each other.
  • Twitter–It's an obvious breaking-news and newsgathering tool. Take advantage of its immediacy.
  • Video–Use it to for stories that are better shown than told. And by all means, make it easy for site visitors to upload their own videos. That goes for photos, too.
  • Entertainment guides and calendars–Be the definitive place to find out what's going on around town. Let the audience easily add events, too.
  • Multiple forms of distribution–Cell phones, iPhones, Facebook widgets, Kindles, syndication deals, whatever. Be promiscuous.
  • Search-engine optimization–Part of being promiscuous: Make it easy for Google and other search engines to find your content (not the other way 'round, as some dinosaurs would advocate).
  • Targeted and contextual advertising–Banner ads are soooo 1997. Google is winning because it ties ads directly to the content they accompany. Advertisers prefer that, too–and will pay more for it. 
  • New advertisers–How many local businesses advertise in the average big-city daily? It's a single-digit percentage, in most places. There's a lot of room for growth there. Find ways to help restaurants, plumbers, party planners, barbers, nail salons and other small business to get the word out.
  • Self-service advertising–The key to making advertising for small businesses profitable is to make it cheap to create those ads. One solution: Make it dead-easy for advertisers to place their own ads. 
  • Business directories–Make it easy for readers to find them and review local businesses. Make it easy for businesses to reach out (and advertise) to readers. Everybody wins.

This list just scratches the surface–the successful next-generation news and information products will have to have all of these attributes, and more. But starting with a blank sheet of paper to design these new products, rather than trying to adapt existing products, will go a long way toward creating modern news, information and advertising services that are far richer (and more successful) than their existing forebears. These will be entirely new and different ways of finding out about and interacting with the world around us.

One more big thought: These next-generation news/information/communication/advertising products probably are not going to be built by those dying newspapers, or by the people who currently put them out. That's a hard thing to say, but I believe they've officially blown their chance. Weighed down by legacy thinking, costs and culture, the existing operators of newspapers simply can't move fast enough or imaginatively enough into the future. We've learned that over and over. If it wasn't true, newspapers wouldn't be dying.

I strongly believe it will be upstarts, new players, that build the successful news products of the future. Lean, nimble and creative, they'll be able to pull together all the ingredients listed above and come up with a replacement for the traditional newspaper that's far more interesting, interactive and richer in just about every way. 

The basic skills and mores of journalism that underpin them will have their roots in the products of the past, but will be arrayed in entirely new forms for an audience that assumes it's going to get real-time information, delivered in multiple forms, with audience participation and the ability to share, mix and match every element. Indeed, that sort of flexibility and freedom is antithetical to the tightly controlled newspapers we've known for decades. These new products will be so much better.

Newspapers are dead. The future is now. Let's start finding the best ways to serve the audience that's clamoring for something that puts the "new" back into news.

Doing Journalism Differently

It's widely argued that the mainstream media did a fairly poor job of holding George W. Bush accountable during his presidency by failing to adequately challenge the administration's claims and positions. And it's just as widely argued that the press is in the tank for Barack Obama. Neither position is exactly true, but perception is reality, and those alleged media failings are undermining a lot of the public's faith in journalism at a time when the news business is already struggling for economic and business reasons.

With Obama about to take office, the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact site is trying to get off on the right foot in keeping track of the new president's record. You don't automatically think of the St. Pete Times as a bastion of political reporting or government watchdogging, but Bill Adair and his crew at PolitiFact have carved out a nice niche trying to use non-traditional journalism forms to monitor politicians' words and actions. 

During the 2008 campaign, PolitiFact ran a solid fact-checking service, based on a nice visual gimmick called the Truth-O-Meter, to keep watch on the truthiness of the candidates' promises. Now the site has expanded that concept to tracking Obama's many pledges to change the way government works. More than 500 pledges, in fact, culled by the PolitiFact team from speeches, position papers, interviews and the like. 

Voila: The Obameter. The site rates each promise on a scale ranging from "Promise Broken" to "Promise Kept," with some nuances in between, like "Compromise." So far, with the administration yet to officially start, virtually all of the promises are rated as "No action," but two–Republicans in the Cabinet and more detailed reporting of capital gains–have been scored as "Promise Kept."

This is a cool tool, and PolitiFact is going to be making it available as a widget (several widgets, in fact) so that other sites and blogs can keep track of the new administration's performance, as well. That's the sort of content syndication that should be standard for sophisticated Web sites, pushing to have their content carried far and wide, with branding and traffic advantages redounding to the home site. (Politico is doing a master class in this these days, with dozens of newspapers now signed up to carry its content.)

None of this really looks like traditional journalism. The Obameter doesn't follow conventional story formats in any way, and is really a hybrid between data, reporting, news and information presentation. We need to see a lot more of this. There are a many different ways to tell a story, especially online, and the more experimentation we see with journalism forms, the faster the state of the art will evolve and thrive.

Want to see more non-traditional news presentation and distribution examples? Check out these two excellent posts from Mark Luckie's 10,000 Words blog, listing a half dozen other sites that are changing the way news is covered and presented.

Boondoggling the Inauguration

Many years ago, in my ink-stained days, a couple of newsroom pals and I invented the Golden Concorde Boondoggle Award, given to the colleague who managed to pull off the year's most outrageous reporting trip. You know, the kind of story that required exotic travel but might have been a little hard to justify journalistically, if you get my drift. 

If you managed to sneak a bizarre idea past an editor, get the assignment and get the expense account approved, you could win the Golden Concorde, which was named after a notorious boondoggle in which one of us convinced an employer to pay for a trans-Atlantic flight aboard the erstwhile luxury SST. (Said scammer shall remain nameless, because it's not clear what the statute of limitations is on these things–but, um, let's just say the Concorde was a very, very cool way to travel!)

There's a long history of this sort of thing in newsrooms, of course–probably every reporter has pulled off a boondoggle or two (or 10), gaming the system to score an expenses-paid junket in the name of some fanciful story, or some similar scam. Gaming the system like this is practically considered one of the perks of the job. 

I know somebody who once cleverly arranged coverage of a major story that coincidentally, ahem, put several colleagues within close driving range of his out-of-town wedding. Nice. Every journalist knows the apocryphal tale of the $1,000 fur coat carefully hidden in an unusually meticulous expense account. I even once managed to talk my editors at The Washington Post into an assignment covering the glitzy opening of Epcot Center (and thus hanging around DisneyWorld for a few days)–as a business story. That won me the 1982 Golden Concorde, incidentally.

In an era of tight budgets, this sort of excess is almost extinct. Budget-conscious editors are much more careful about approving out-of-town travel, even if it's for legitimate journalistic purposes, much less a pure boondoggle. There are exceptions–the Olympics and political conventions are still boondoggle paradise, for instance, and God bless the members of the White House press corps that are pulling duty covering Barack Obama's Hawaiian vacation. Tough assignment, that one (protests to the contrary notwithstanding). Golden Concordes for everybody.

Still, with money tight, there's not a lot of excuse for this sort of thing: news organizations really need to be using their limited resources to cover the stories that are most valuable to their readers and viewers, not frivolities that provide staffers an excuse to take what amounts to a busman's holiday.

Which is why it's unfortunate to hear that so many news organizations have suddenly decided they need to provide firsthand coverage of the upcoming Presidential inauguration. "Papers that have never come before are coming in droves," Joe Keenan, director of the Senate Daily Press Gallery, tells Politico, reporting that applications for inauguration press credentials are skyrocketing. Mark Abraham, deputy director of the Senate Press Photographers' Gallery says, "We've never seen anything like it. … It's amazing."

Sorry, folks, but it's not just amazing. It's wrong. Yeah, Obama's inauguration is going to be an historic event. But what on earth are these expense-account journalists going to be able to tell their readers and viewers about the inauguration that isn't available elsewhere–indeed, all over the place, in the blanket coverage of the event? 

Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News is sending a photographer to the inauguration. Why? Could that photog possibly have a unique take on an event that's going to be covered by hundreds, if not thousands, of other shooters? Will the resulting photos truly be better than what the Deseret News can get from the AP? I strongly doubt it. Newsday–which just slashed its Washington bureau–is sending seven reporters to the inauguration, ostensibly to capture "local angles" on the event. Huh? How many Long Island angles can there really be on this story? 

Pardon my cynicism, but this frenzy to get an assignment to go to Washington for the inauguration smacks of boondoggles gone wild, journalists who eagerly want to see Obama's historic swearing-in (like millions of other people), and are ginning up excuses to get their employers to pay their way to D.C. and to wangle a press pass to get close to the action. 

Twenty years ago, in a different news economy, that would have been amusing and even sort of admirable, in a cracked sort of way; today it's just sad, because it shows that a lot of newsrooms still don't have their priorities straight. The cost of those seven Newsday staffers will come out of money that could have been used to cover truly local stories in Long Island. The expenses for the Deseret News photographer means that something–probably a lot of things–in Utah, of far more interest to local readers, is going to go uncovered. And so on.

It would be nice to be in Washington on Jan. 20 to witness history. But I'm afraid there's not a lot of rational journalistic reason for most news organizations to send reporters and photographers to cover the inauguration. With money tight–and doubtless getting tighter–the Golden Concorde Boondoggle Award needs to be retired. There are so many better ways for newsrooms to spend their limited resources on behalf of their readers. 

60/60/24/7

After struggling mightily with the concept of updating their Web sites more than once a day, newspapers are finally figuring out what cable news networks and all-news radio stations have known for years: There's an audience for constantly updated news. It may not be a huge audience, but it's there–and keeping the news fresh keeps the site looking fresh for every site visitor.

Using news blogs, Twitter and other tools, an increasing number of sites are providing visitors with ever-more-frequent and in some cases real-time updates of breaking news. You've heard of the 24/7 news cycle? This is the 60/60/24/7 cycle, where every second of every minute of every hour counts. Publish or perish (or is it tweet or be tweeted?).

Some examples:
  • Twitter, of course, is the current flavor of the month for quick-news junkies, and has been useful for on-the-spot reports–many from onlookers rather than journalists–on fast-moving stories like the Mumbai terror attacks and the recent California wildfires. In my view, Twitter is still a blunt instrument, with a horrible signal-to-noise ratio and a following that may be too insular among newsies (very few "regular" readers know what it is). And it has no visible business model, as Valleywag recently pointed out. But used properly, it's a very interesting reporting and publishing tool for breaking news. 
  • Philly.com is one of several newspaper sites using a breaking news blog to quickly push stories onto the site. On a developing story, this can be a bit like reading wire-service updates and writethrus, which can be oddly entertaining as the story comes together, not to mention informative and newsy. In any event, it provides rapid updates to the site and keeps things fresh. It would be nice to have more than a simple list of headlines, but it's the right idea. (Oh, and hello, old Philly.com pals: Why is the breaking news blog not clearly labeled or featured on Philly.com's News page?) The Philadelphia Inquirer–part of Philly.com–also has its own Twitter-distributed news feed.
  • Politico, on its new Politico44 offshoot that tracks the Obama administration, is publishing brief, Twitter-like dispatches at the top of the page in a space called, for some reason, The Whiteboard. Unfortunately, these news flashes don't seem to be archived anywhere, at least not obviously, so if you don't see them as they pass by, you miss them.
The concept of constantly streaming news is a real sea change for most, if not all newsrooms, accustomed as they were to publishing no story before its time, which invariably was whenever the evening deadline occurred. Now reporters are learning to push tidbits of news online quickly for a voracious, news-hungry audience segment–sometimes tweeting just a few words at a time. If legendary Washington Post Publisher Philip L. Graham's famous view of journalism as the "rough first draft of history" is still valid, then these are the notes for the first draft.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, though I know it discomfits a lot of print journalists to be filing news in real time. Wire services and broadcasters have done that for years, and all the usual concerns about accuracy and context and quality should still apply. But we're living in a 60/60/24/7 world now, and there are a lot of competitors–formal and informal–who are pushing news to readers as fast as it comes in. Newspaper Web sites have to learn to keep up with the pace of the news–not the slow, artificial cycles of print production.

Truly Viral

This is cool: Google has set up a page with a map to track search requests for terms like "flu" and "flu symptoms" around the country (using IP address data to provide a geographic fix). Voila: A map that should show very quickly how this winter's flu viruses spread from state to state.

This is a great example of using data collection to do a sort of crowdsourced reporting. News organizations should be so creative. Do news Web sites do any sort of analysis of how readers use their site search? Is there a way to use those search results to track trends or stories? Are there other ways to solicit simple information from readers that can be aggregated to track trends? 

Gannett's Ft. Myers News-Press famously used crowdsourcing to track sewer assessments, but other examples have been, unfortunately, fairly rare, at least among news organizations (though the News-Press, like some other papers, is asking readers to help it track local gasoline prices). Efforts like Adrian Holovaty's Everyblock.com are in a similar vein.

Coming up with projects as simple and slick as Google's flu tracker requires a different kind of thinking about how information is collected, analyzed and presented. This is why the best minds at newspapers and other journalism organizations should be working to come up with similarly innovative new products, especially online, rather than spending all their time trying to save print.

You can read more about the Google effort here on CNN.com.