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 The old convenient package of news that landed on the driveway each morning or played on TV at dinnertime has been replaced by a cacophony of sources that can be overwhelming.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.

 

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 Lawrence.com 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 LJWorld.com, Lawrence.com, KUSports.com 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!)

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.

The Daily Snooze

The hype around Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.'s new iPad news app, The Daily, is deafening. And baffling.

"The newspaper hits the information age," headlined TechCrunch. A "digital renaissance," crowed Murdoch. "New times demand new journalism." (His Fox News even broke into coverage of clashing protesters in Cairo to cover The Daily's introduction today.) "The app appears rich and magazine-like," wrote Damon Kiesow on Poynter. "This is a significant launch," wrote Insanely Great Mac. 

And then there was this breathless gem, also from TechCrunch: "Provided the content quality stays high and the news value is there, this could be the first iPad app to beat Angry Birds and, more important, truly bring journalism into the 21st century." 

Really? Seriously? Actually, The Daily barely brings digital journalism into the late 20th century, much less the 21st. I don't think Angry Birds has anything to worry about. Maybe—to steal a comment from Jim Brady (thanks, Jim!)—Murdoch's bigger problem will be Angry Readers.

Unfortunately, the Daily is yet another example of a newspaper pasted on a screen—in this case a tablet screen—that epically fails to acknowledge or take advantage of the way people use and interact on the Internet.

There are virtually no links in The Daily. Its interaction with social tools like Twitter and Facebook is perfunctory, at best. There are symbols hinting at Facebook, Twitter or e-mail sharing, but when you tap them a warning pops up that says, "This article is only available in The Daily app." Gee, helpful. Comments seem to be attached to pages, not individual stories. The interface is pleasant, but a little clunky and stiff. And don't even think about aggregating content from The Daily. It's largely verboten.

The journalism itself? Brief and superficial, sort of a Time magazine/USA Today hybrid. Yawn. Missing in action: Business and tech news. Huh?

Maybe most incredibly, The Daily truly is…daily. It gets published in the morning, and that's basically it. While the world is riveted today by the violence in Cairo, the premier issue of The Daily leads with an outdated story about yesterday's peaceful million-man march in Tahrir Square. This is intentional, apparently. While The Daily's app supports more frequent updates, PaidContent quotes The Daily's editor, Jesse Angelo, as saying, “I don’t want another site that’s constantly updating.” (Okaaay. Good luck with that.)

Despite its vaguely slick veneer, The Daily is yet another symptom of a running problem with traditional news people trying to bring traditional news products into the digital age: They just don't seem to understand the current state of the technology and the way audiences use it. They seem to think multimedia glitz is all that's needed, even though, in digital news, we've been there, done that.

Whenever I see the latest whizbang attempt to create a news app for the iPad, I wonder whether the creators were paying any attention to what was happening in the early '90s, when the first multimedia CD-ROM news prototypes and products were showing up. CNN, for instance, had a terrific CD-ROM news prototype in 1992 that was every bit as good as the overhyped Sports Illustrated tablet prototype that surfaced in late 2009. Newsweek published a quarterly CD-ROM product in the early '90s whose presentation and features weren't very far removed from what The Daily is doing. The delivery method is different—tablets vs. clunky desktop PCs—but the products are remarkably similar. It's as if multimedia news presentation concepts have been frozen in amber for 15-plus years—and completely ignorant of the revolution in interactivity and social connectivity. The digital world has moved on; news providers apparently haven't.

Murdoch is hoping that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, will download The Daily's iPad app and sign up for a subscription, and that advertisers pay to reach that audience. (Jeff Jarvis crunches some numbers on The Daily's economics.) But even at 14 cents a day, I can't imagine actually wanting to pay for The Daily when the two-week free trial runs out (I'll bet that trial period gets mysteriously extended. Yep, thought so!)—and I should be the ideal customer for The Daily: a news junkie with an iPad. Sorry, no thanks. The Daily just doesn't break any ground in digital news, nor is it a product that I can imagine anybody coming to rely upon for a regular news fix.

Want to see some nice work being done on iPad apps for news? Look at Pulse and Flipboard, both designed by smart tech people, not news people, to leverage technologies like Twitter and RSS feeds, in an attractive package with loads of social features. Maybe these apps don't have The Daily's cute graphic of a plane landing on the screen to illustrate a travel story, or live Sudoku and crosswords—but they're infinitely better as news products. And isn't that the idea?

Fortunately, not everybody has bought into The Daily hype—especially folks, like me, who've actually tried The Daily and found it wanting. Scott Rosenberg nails it: "Reading it feels like a spin in the Wayback Machine." And Seth Weintraub on 9to5Mac wrote: "Was anyone else as underwhelmed as we were? … I seriously don't get it." Neither do I.

Why TBD is Important

First, the disclaimers: Jim Brady, president of TBD.com, is a good friend. So are his top editors, Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry. And my company, GrowthSpur, is working with TBD to build local ad-sales networks for bloggers in the Washington area (contrary to one report, there is absolutely no financial relationship between GrowthSpur and TBD, btw; they certainly aren't paying us). So I may be a bit biased.

But I think TBD, just launched this week, is an incredibly important development for the future of local news, for many reasons. Let's tick off a few:

  • It's laser-focused on local news and information, not wasting any resources on non-local content that's available elsewhere. 
  • It's Web-focused, but also smartly incorporates traditional media—in this case, a local TV station and local cable-news station—as key elements. But make no mistake, the Web site is first and foremost, not playing a supporting role. 
  • It's aggressively curating and linking to every source of local news in sight (more on that in a bit)—even links to WashingtonPost.com and rival TV stations Web sites have already appeared on its home page. (Linking to competitors! What a concept!)
  • It's taking a smart approach to the all-important mobile space, with apps that don't paste the Web site onto a phone screen, but offer the kinds of things—traffic, weather, headlines—that people really want and need when they're on the go. 
  • It's doing some very sexy things with geocoding, putting a relevant, hyperlocal face on content in a metropolitan area whose sprawling geographical diversity makes local relevance essential. (I don't want news and info and listings about a suburb 40 miles away, in another state. I want to read about my neighborhood.)
  • Its leadership is convinced that TBD can make money covering local news and information. With $100 billion spent a year on local advertising in the U.S., and more and more of that moving to the Web, that's a very canny bet. Brady and the TBD gang are focused on making local online advertising work—not on protecting a print product or chasing dreams of subscription revenue. That focus makes a big difference.

All great things. But I think the most important thing about TBD is its approach to covering the Washington area: aggressively and adroitly mixing professional and blogger content. Finally, a well-funded, big-time local effort is taking to heart Jeff Jarvis' infamous "do what you do best and link to the rest" maxim.

That allows TBD to look like a big-time news organization with a very small staff. Indeed, it's got just 12 reporters roaming the vast DC area—a fraction of what The Washington Post deploys locally. But TBD's secret weapon is that it avidly supplements its staff reporting with content from more than 125 local bloggers (and counting), covering everything from neighborhood politics to food to allergies to parenting to living green.

In doing so, TBD is taking advantage of a powerful phenomenon that also underlies what's driving GrowthSpur: the enormous explosion in local blogging around the country over the past couple of years. Everywhere you look, every town, every nook and cranny, on all sorts of odd—and not so odd—local subjects, somebody's blogging, and they're often doing it passionately and well. 

Fed by cheap blogging tools, an increasing perception of the need for micro local coverage, and, frankly, a surplus of underemployed journalists (though not all of these practitioners are journalists, of course) the local blogosphere has turned into a hothouse of coverage–tens of thousands of little local journalism startups.

And that's what TBD is taking advantage of. I hesitate to even type the words "taking advantage," because it sounds pejorative, and TBD is doing anything but exploiting its blog partners. Indeed, contrary to a lot of arrogant, not-invented-here journalism organizations (Washington Post, I'm looking at you), TBD is bending over backwards to be a good partner to these blogs, giving them home-page credit, pushing them traffic and providing them with a cut of advertising (and GrowthSpur is helping with the latter, too). TBD is treating its blog partners with respect, and that counts for a lot. They deserve respect—these bloggers are working their butts off to cover things that are important to their community, and TBD is giving them recognition, traffic and revenue. Nice.

What does TBD get in exchange? Breadth and depth. TBD is going to be able to cover a huge percentage of what The Washington Post covers locally with less than one-tenth the staff. Not a bad equation—but the reality is that TBD may wind up covering much more than the Post. That's because TBD is going to link to Ellie Ashford's blog covering Annandale, Va., (a suburban town the Post barely knows exists, even though it's less than a dozen miles from the paper's newsroom), and to Lisa Rowan's D.C. vintage clothing blog (not exactly a Post beat), and to Mark Zuckerman's blog about the Washington Nationals (hands-down better than the Post's coverage of the team, and one of several Nats baseball blogs in TBD's stable) and to Jessica Sidman's blog about ice cream and other frozen treats (not generally part of the Post's mainstream food coverage). Multiply those examples by 125-plus blogs and you see that TBD is giving its readers one-stop access to a breadth of local content the Post can't even imagine.

To be sure, TBD is hardly the first site with an aggressive linking strategy and blog network–the "ist" sites (Gothamist, DCist, etc.) do a great job aggregating and expanding on urban blog content in several markets; NBC's owned and operated stations have quietly built strong (though a bit clumsy–they don't share credit well) local aggregation sites; Examiner.com is mixing staff (well, "examiner" reporting with aggregation to build city sites) and there are countless smaller local curation and aggregation experiments going on. 

In addition, TBD is very much still in its infancy, and working out the kinks—at first blush, I'm not sure its priorities and beat structure are quite right (it seems to be catering too much to hip downtown 20-somethings and too thin on the suburbs), and Brady concedes that many planned innovative features are still sort of TBD themselves. So it will be interesting to see how the site evolves and better serves the Washington market.

But TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area. To paraphrase Cory Bergman on LostRemote, TBD isn't just talking about a theory of a new kind of coverage—it's walking the walk. It's building the future. 

As it develops, I think TBD is going to prove a model for other local efforts around the country. It understands something very fundamental, something that once upon a time, a group of us referred to it as the Tom Sawyer strategy: when you're working with limited resources, use them to the maximum–and turn to the rest of the Web for help with filling in the blanks.

A Snow News Week

My Sunday Washington Post still hasn't been delivered. It's been four days now. But I'm not complaining.

Washington has been buried his week in a snowfall of biblical proportions. You may have heard about it—it's been in all the papers. (Or so I hear!) Here in the Washington area, we refer to it as Snowmageddon, or Snowpocalypse or—as the third storm in a week hit us—Snoverkill.

A fast-moving story of this magnitude just isn't particularly well-suited to the "aged" news of print. With conditions changing hourly, cancellations coming fast and furious and a pressing need for real-time coverage and information, this was a major story best told online (or via broadcast). The medium was a perfect fit for the message.

So forget the print edition of the Post: It was WashingtonPost.com that I relied on this week for news of the storm. And the site did a very good job of keeping up with developments and using a wide variety of Web tools to tell the story and to keep readers informed.

Foremost among these was the Post's Breaking News Blog, which provided a running account of the latest developments, updated almost 24 hours a day (other Post.com services, including its Twitter feeds, tended to dry up outside of normal newsroom hours). The blog smartly carried a prominent list of emergency phone numbers, plus a link to a comprehensive list of area cancellations and delays. Another blog tracked road and transit conditions as the storm snarled local transportation.

Post.com's most unique resource in the storm was the Capital Weather Gang, a group of local meteorology buffs—many of them pros—who provide spot-on weather forecasts and analysis for the site through a blog, Twitter feed and page of live maps. Great stuff. (I'm a particular fan of the Weather Gang because in their early days they were stalwart contributors to Backfence, and it's great to see them so successful in the Big Show.)

That's not all. The Post's usually lousy local home page was revived as a catch-all for just about all of the site's snow coverage and information (though it weirdly is thin on links to the Capital Weather Gang's work). Twitter feeds provided constant streams of info, though they needed to be updated more, and the site created some key hashtags, including one tracking local power outages. The site's excellent and underrated live discussion area was put to good use providing experts to answer reader questions about the storm and related topics. Even Post.com's usually erratic text-messaging service was a generally reliable provider of the latest storm news to cell phones—critical with power out in many areas.

Best of all: The Post site published a handy schedule of local mass snowball fights on the first day of the storm. Excellent! (Unfortunately, it wasn't really updated after that, and Twitter and Facebook took the lead.)

Post.com's coverage of the snow wasn't perfect. It could have used a lot more reader contributions. Beyond the usual user-submitted photo galleries (more than 2,800 photos strong), it would have been great to see reader vignettes about the storm (hint: start by mining the story comments). There were many missed opportunities for crowdsourcing, including maps of things like plowed and unplowed streets (the Capital Weather Gang did crowdsource a map of snowfall totals). There wasn't nearly enough aggregation and curation of reports from other local media (though a mashup of key local Twitter feeds was good). More video (with fewer damn preroll ads!) would have been nice—alas, the Post laid off most of its superb video team, including Emmy-winner Travis Fox, a few months ago. And there were storm stories that showed up on local TV—including an epidemic of roof collapses—that the Post didn't really seem to cover well (though there was a map on the site showing some of the collapses).

Still, WashingtonPost.com did an admirable job covering a big, complicated, fast-moving local story, using a lot of different tools, and its work should be a model for other news organizations in similar situations. I certainly didn't miss my printed paper (though I hope I get a credit for it on my next bill).

Excuse me now: I need to go shovel three feet of snow off my driveway. And the Capital Weather Gang is hinting that there's yet another storm coming Monday…

And Verily, Steve Jobs Came Down from the Mountaintop With a Tablet, and It Was Good (But Version 2 Will be Better)

After all the fevered buildup, we now know the actual details of Apple's iPad tablet. Probably not surprisingly, it doesn't quite live up to all of the pre-release hype and speculation (including my own). But it still appears to be a remarkable device that, in its first generation, has the potential to change a few corners of the media world. And that's just the beginning.

Out of the box, the iPad is a very interesting reading device. Lying flat on a desk or table, it can mimic a lot of the readability and convenience of print (and adds a lot of bells and whistles). It makes the Kindle look like an antique. It's light and easily portable. The iPhone, despite its small screen, isn't a bad reading device, and the iPad greatly expands on that. Does it portend a whole new business model for newspapers and magazines? Not at first glance. But you'll be able to buy books on it, and maybe that will extend to periodicals in same way. For sure, advertising will look a whole lot better on it.

The iPad seems to have real potential as a portable movie and TV viewer, with a screen much larger than most current portable devices and a form factor much more comfortable than watching a movie on a laptop. It's easy to imagine curling up with a movie on the iPad.

Of course, the iPad runs most iPhone apps, on a bigger screen, and that's a real positive, given the massive iPhone app ecosystem. The development of iPad-specific apps that take advantage of the larger screen will make it even more valuable. It also looks like a pretty good laptop substitute–indeed, perhaps the best description of the iPad at this point is that it's the world's slickest netbook computer.

Not visible yet, at least in this version: more integration with large-screen video and movie devices, easy connectivity to projectors, printers and other peripherals, and a built-in camera that could make it a great portable video-conferencing and Skype device. Others have pointed out additional shortcomings.

But hey, this is Version 1. Just a couple of years ago, the original iPhone had its own limitations, and over time it added a rich set of features and capabilities—apps, for instance, didn't come along for the first year or so, and a video camera and good GPS were second-generation upgrades. So we'll have to see how the iPad evolves. It looks like a very nice product now, at surprisingly reasonable price points. Version 2.0 could be a real killer.

Do I want one? (Everybody asks!) Are you kidding? I've already got my name on the waiting list. I can't wait to get my hands on it. And every media company should feel the same way–and be thinking about how to develop new kinds of products for this very interesting new type of device.

Apple’s Tabula Rasa

As the new year rolls in, the talk of the tech world is Apple's allegedly upcoming tablet computer. The New York Times has even dubbed 2010 as "the year of the tablet."

Sites and publications that cover Apple and the tech industry are abuzz with the usual frenetic levels of speculation that always precede the secretive company's future product releases. Nobody really knows anything, but the guesses have taken on a life of their own, creating a froth of hype that Apple itself probably couldn't achieve if was being forthcoming. 

The consensus of speculation seems to be that the tablet will be called the iSlate, it will be a cross between an iPhone and a laptop, it will have a nine- or 10-inch high-resolution color screen, it will have Wi-Fi and cell network access to the Internet, it will cost somewhere between several hundred dollars and $1,000, and it will be announced later this month and be available in the spring. Or maybe not. Everybody's guessing.

There's a lot of chatter about the tablet in media-industry circles, as well. The idea of a portable device for reading newspapers and magazines has been kicking around for nearly two decades, dating back to concepts promulgated by erstwhile Knight Ridder new media/tablet guru Roger Fidler (who's still chasing his dream). In all those years, the mythical tablet has been a sort of holy grail for publishers, the electronic version of papyrus and newsprint. That dream has been renewed lately by the ability to crudely publish newspapers and magazines on Amazon's Kindle, as well as by a much-hyped demo of an electronic version of Sports Illustrated that frankly doesn't advance much beyond what Fidler and others among us were demo-ing in the early '90s. (Can we get over the electronic page-turning metaphor, replete with sound effects? Please?) 

And now, or very soon, comes Apple's tablet. Publishers look at it and see that text reader they've always dreamed of. TV and movie execs look at it and see a portable video device. Gamers and software developers see it as a new kind of lightweight computer.

But I believe all of these views are way too limited. With a nod toward the parable of the five blind men evaluating an elephant, it's important not to look at the forthcoming tablet through the prism of individual media types. Most of those speculating about Apple's tablet aren't thinking big enough. They're concentrating on narrow possibilities—it could be a book reader! It could play movies!—without seeing the much bigger picture of what Apple may be on the verge of creating. To its users, it will be: All Of The Above. And that's huge.

Indeed, I believe the Apple tablet has the potential to strikingly transform large swaths of the media business, from newspapers to television to movies, pretty much all at once. Reading the tea leaves of all the rumors, and making guesses based on following the company closely for 25 years as a reporter, fan and (full disclosure: very small) shareholder, I think there's a significant chance that Apple may swing for the fences with its new device—and the services that surround it. 

Apple's tablet has the potential to change the way we consume and pay for media—many different types of media—as substantially as the company revolutionized the computing business with the original Macintosh, the music business with the iPod and iTunes and telephony and handheld computing with the iPhone. Probably more so, in fact.

It's also important to think of the Apple tablet as more than just the device. It may be part of a larger technological/media system that will also include a greatly expanded iTunes store and perhaps even a greatly enhanced version of Apple's long-simmering AppleTV product.

With that in mind, let's speculate on how the tablet could impact different types of media:

  • Newspapers: Roger Fidler's tablet finally comes to life, with all the attendant multimedia and interactivity possibilities. Big deal—the Web has done that for years. What the tablet will add is location-awareness, giving publishers and advertisers the ability to tune their messages to where the user is. This is the ultimate in personalized news. We've already seen glimpses of this on the iPhone, Android and other smartphones (which are surprisingly good as text-based newsreaders). Imagine the same thing with a big screen. There might even be a subscription model for the best, most unique content, since there are already signs that smartphone users will pay for the convenience of certain kinds of quality niche content or apps. (But hey, newspapers: No simply pasting print content on a tablet screen, OK? Take advantage of the medium.)
  • Magazines: The flashy Sports Illustrated demo is frustrating because it's so superficial. A portable magazine reader is important only if it greatly exploits the ability for interactivity that will finally make magazines (if they're smart) tap into the vital special-interest communities that are their subscriber bases. I don't just want to watch video that goes with Sports Illustrated stories—I want to be able to instantly discuss those stories with other SI readers. Incidentally, the Apple tablet will make the magazine's industry's belated efforts to create its own magazine-reading device completely superfluous.
  • Books: It's assumed by just about everybody that the Kindle is pretty much roadkill the moment that Apple's tablet hits the market. Instead of a single-function, black-and-white book reader, the iSlate would provide readers with full-color displays, access to an expanded iTunes store for book downloads—and the ability use the device for countless other functions. Sure, it will be more expensive than the Kindle (at first). But it will provide much more value. If you're going to carry a book reader, wouldn't you rather it be one that does tons of other things? (Especially if the reader can provide gorgeous color multimedia and interactivity—portable online book discussion groups?—at the same time.)
  • Television: This is where things start to get really interesting. The tablet could finally bring the long-dreamed-of "TV everywhere" concept to life, with a portable device that provides a la carte access to all sorts of video content—from YouTube, TV networks, studios, etc. Apple already is reported to be in talks with broadcast networks to provide access to their content on the tablet on a subscription basis; extend that to cable networks, plus the existing iTunes and Hulu video-on-demand services, and users will be able to watch pretty much whatever they want whenever they want. But wait, there's more: That viewing wouldn't be limited to the small screen of the tablet. Combined with a much-expanded version of the TiVo-like AppleTV platform, the tablet could act as a controller and source for watching that same video on the big screen at home. You could switch seamlessly between large and small screens. And the business models for this—subscription, pay-per-view–could upend the advertising-based model for broadcast TV. The possibilities here are fascinating.
  • Movies: Along the same lines, the tablet plus AppleTV could be a marvelous bridge between portable movie-viewing (on a much better screen than watching movies on an iPod or iPhone, which is surprisingly popular) and home viewing. Netflix and others are hurtling toward ubiquitous digital delivery of movies; Apple could beat them to it by providing the devices that are the missing link.
  • Communications: The tablet will work on cellphone networks, but who wants to carry a phone that big? Wrong question. Telephony would be merely a sideshow on the tablet. More importantly, always-on access to communications via cell networks and Wi-Fi, plus a user-facing camera, could make the tablet a powerful video-communications tool: Skype in your hands or, to hearken back a few decades, the ultimate PicturePhone
  • Apps and Gaming: The secret weapon of the iPhone has been its tens of thousands of apps, which give the device countless additional uses—any iPhone user will gladly demonstrate for you the latest app that has made his or her life easier (or at least cooler). Here again, the iTunes store is the enabler, and it's reasonable—especially if the iSlate uses a variant of the iPhone operating system—to expect that the apps ecosystem will transfer to the new device, enhanced by the larger screen size and other enhanced features. The portable gaming possibilities alone are enormous. So are the possibilities for interesting and innovative social applications. (Video Twitter, anyone?)

That's quite a laundry list for a single device, but that's where Apple appears to be headed. Oh, and the tablet will be a computer, too. Why carry a laptop when the iSlate is lighter, has a full-sized virtual keyboard, maybe some sort of video-out capability and the ability to handle Word, Excel and PowerPoint files (plus whatever the apps bring to it)? I just wish they'd add a slide-in dock for an iPhone, so I could carry a single lightweight device.

The scenario I've laid out here is just as speculative as any of the other guessing out there about what Apple's up to. I'm certainly not alone: Daring Fireball's John Gruber makes a similarly sweeping prediction:

If you’re thinking The Tablet is just a big iPhone, or just Apple’s take on the e-reader, or just a media player, or just anything, I say you’re thinking too small—the equivalent of thinking that the iPhone was going to be just a click wheel iPod that made phone calls. I think The Tablet is nothing short of Apple’s reconception of personal computing. 

These are grand expectations. Truth is, nobody really knows what Apple is up to except Steve Jobs and a handful of other insiders. And certainly a handful of naysayers are suggesting that nobody really wants to lug around a tablet computer, and thus it could be a Newton-like bust (although the Newton, in retrospect, seems remarkably prescient). Indeed, Apple, full of hubris and swagger after the enormous success of the iPod and iPhone, could well blow it with an overpriced, unfocused product. 

But like Gruber, I'm betting on Apple to break ground, yet again, with its tablet, and in a big, big way. It could bring together so many threads of innovation that have been developing for the past few years. I truly believe that we could be on the verge of an important turning point for the way we get and use all sorts of media. I can't wait to see what Apple comes up with. It could change everything.

On Mobile Services, Broken News

Steve Buttry has a terrific post up about the importance of news organizations having a smart mobile strategy, and makes the excellent point that just as traditional organizations are finally learning to be Web-first, they may need to quickly become mobile-first.

"Mobile first” needs to change how we think and act throughout our organizations. Reporters, editors and visual journalists need to think first about how to package and deliver news for mobile devices. Information technology staffs need to work first on development of mobile applications for popular devices. Sales staffs need to make it a top priority to guide business customers in using our mobile apps and platforms to reach customers with advertising and direct-sales opportunities. Designers need to present content that is clear and easy to read on the small screen (even if this means spending less staff resources on design of print or web products). Executives need to redirect resources and set priorities so that we pursue mobile opportunities as aggressively as we pursue the most important news stories in our communities.

Absolutely true, on all counts. As I've written before, building great mobile products is no more about pasting the Web on a cellphone screen than building great Web products is about pasting the newspaper on a computer screen. They're almost entirely different media, and they require very different sensibilities and thinking—which seem generally lacking in most old-line news organizations that are still grappling with the Web.

Among other things, mobile brings to bear more immediacy and relevance, a need for much smaller bits of information, and the ability to pinpoint news and information to a reader's specific location. Those are all powerful differences, and every news organization with a mobile service or app is still grappling with them—and still pasting the Web onto a mobile screen, alas. Indeed, mobile may be the ultimate breaking news medium—but too many of the efforts to do it are just broken.

I've been meaning for a while to do a case study on how not to do a mobile strategy, and Steve's post gives me an excuse to get to it. (Want to see some good mobile strategies? See my "what works" post on mobile from a while back) The guinea pig for my examination is the mobile service provided by my hometown newspaper (and long-ago employer), The Washington Post. I've been using the Post's text-message news service and mobile app for several months now, and they're almost always frustrating, almost comically so.

For one thing, the Post seems to have no consistent clue about news judgment on its text-messaging service. Too often, the headlines sent are hardly important or immediate, involving some piece of international or government news that simply has no urgency, like a procedural vote in Congress or by a local government, or a headline the other day that President Obama had said he was unlikely to close the Guantanamo prison by January, which was hardly a surprise. A particularly bad example came a couple Sundays ago, when my phone buzzed with a breakdown of which Redskin players were inactive for that day's game, the first time all season something like that has gone out. Not particularly important, except maybe to bettors or die-hard fans.

The flip side is that the service often strangely misses breaking news: I swear the Post didn't text out any headlines about Michael Jackson's death, though it had Farrah Fawcett's earlier the same day. And too often, the Post service sends the same headline twice, in rapid succession—a maddening glitch for those who have limited text-messaging accounts.

On the other hand, the Post service occasionally comes to life with news that does have value, especially to a mobile user: Traffic alerts, especially, are really helpful—when they arrive, which is sporadically. I just wish the Post took advantage of mobile's ability to be location-aware—getting a bulletin about a traffic tie-up all the way on the other side of the Washington region isn't much more useful than the Redskin inactive-players list. Location-aware traffic reports would be the sort of mobile-first thinking that Buttry is writing about, really taking advantage of the medium to provide valuable services to customers.

The Post service is so flaky that I've started to not really trust it. One morning, out of the blue, it messaged the day's weather forecast, something it hadn't done before (or since). My immediate reaction? Must be a new editor managing the bulletins. Minutes later, I thought I had proof of my theory: The next headline was about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. That was a legitimate piece of news, of course, but truth be told, I thought it was a test message, sent by that rookie editor who had accidentally put the weather up a few minutes before. A news service has to be more reliable and trustworthy than that. 

The text-messaging service isn't the only flaw in the Post's mobile strategy. Take the Post's mobile site. Please. 

Updates of the Post's mobile site run hours behind the paper's Web site. That makes it not very useful as a breaking news tool, even though mobile users probably have a higher desire for breaking news because they're out of range of most other news sources. In addition, like many other newspaper apps, the limited Post mobile site is hard to use to search or browse more deeply into the main site; it's usually easier to just click the tiny "View the Full Web Site" link that appears way down at the bottom of the page to see the "real" Post Web site. 

But the real frustration come when the Post's text-alert service links to the Post mobile site. Oh boy. Text-alert stories don't have direct links to the relevant Post story; they all have a big generic "More at http://www.washingtonpost.com" link on them. Where does that go? You guessed it: Not the story, but the home page of that damn mobile site—which, of course, almost always knows nothing about the headline you just received. That's just maddening. Yeah, there may be "more"—but it may be a while before you can read it at mobile.washingtonpost.com. Either put a direct link to the Web version of the story or don't promise "more" at all.

All of this combines, as you might guess, to make the Post's mobile services less than handy or attractive to customers, or at least this customer. The conclusion I draw is that nobody there really has responsibility for the mobile product (you wonder if Post execs have even ever used it themselves, though at least one has touted it to me). Ideally, the paper should have dedicated editors whose job it is to make mobile news and information as good as the Post's other media. At a time when the Post unfortunately is being increasingly perceived as paying less attention to its online product and readers, that doesn't bode well for the future. 

Mobile news and information (and advertising) are where the action is going to be over the next few years. As Steve Buttry says, traditional news organizations like the Post need to learn to be mobile-first in the same way they're trying to be Web-first. If they don't, I'm sure there will be plenty of competitors eager to take away those mobile readers, too.

PS: Want to see an exampl
e of a traditional news organization with the right priorities about mobile? See my post from June about Tampa Bay Online.

PPS: A Dec. 8 followup: Steve Buttry returns to this important subject, with another great post. And just to continue my critique of The Washington Post's feeble mobile alert service: The Post sent out texts today about the FBI requesting an independent review of its actions leading up to the Ft. Hood shootings (anything but urgent) and about the Senate rejecting an abortion amendment to the healthcare bill (procedural news, at best)–but was utterly silent about a gunman firing shots this afternoon at a local community college campus (urgent and local). That's just horrific.

Twitter and Breaking News

Twitter can be maddening in many ways, a cacophony of voices with a lousy signal-to-noise ratio—does anybody really care what somebody else had for breakfast?

But one thing that Twitter excels in is breaking news. Its broadcast, real-time, 140-character headline nature makes it a perfect vehicle for the latest news, whether it's being generated by on-the-spot observers (or participants) and retweeted far and wide, or whether it's being used by news organizations to blast out their latest headlines.

The latter seems a slamdunk use of Twitter by news organizations—it's just a great headline distribution medium. You'd think that news media outlets would be taking advantage of this functionality to increase their reach and influence. But that's not necessarily the case.

Sure, just about every news organization has a Twitter feed or two. But not all of them promote them well (or tend them well). As a result, a list of breaking news feeds on Twitter shows a large disparity in the number of followers for the various sources. This list isn't meant to be comprehensive, though it includes most of the major news brands. But it is representative:

Source       Followers
New York Times  1,993,474
Time  1,670,519
NPR Politics  1,585,066
Breaking News Online  1,325,832
CBS News  1,286,393
Newsweek  925,910
ABCNews  787,833
CNN  547,785
HuffingtonPost  247,841
ESPN  180,473
NPR News  130,433
Fox News  107,818
Wall Street Journal  99,291
Reuters  43,886
MSNBC Breaking  36,228
WashingtonPost  34,556
Google News  24,576
Politico  22,089
YahooNews  4,004
AP  1,552

As you can see, there are some well-known news brands at the top—and some equally well-know news brands at the bottom. The New York Times, Time, NPR and CBS are reaching vast new audiences via Twitter; The Washington Post, Yahoo News and the AP (which should be a natural for a breaking-news headline product), not so much. Some big Web-only names like HuffingtonPost are doing well; others, like Google News, Politico and Yahoo News (the #1 Web news site), are also-rans.

But one of the big names on the list is not like the others: Breaking News Online, the upstart Twitter-only news headline service that has muscled its way near the top of this list, with more than 1.3 million followers. Run by a 19-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, Michael van Poppel, BNO has become an invaluable neutral source for news headlines as soon as they happen. Van Poppel and his small team scan major media sites (and do some of their own reporting) to produce BNO's breaking news feed, pumping out bite-sized news breaks in a manner that will bring a smile to any wire-service or news-radio junkie. They seem to have pitch-perfect news sense, which is essential for any good headline service.

The result: A startup news company with an audience that rivals those of the big traditional news sites on Twitter. Not too shabby. You have to wonder what also-rans like The Washington Post and MSNBC are thinking when they see a teenager beating them qualitatively and quantitatively in distributing breaking news to Twitter's news-junkie-heavy audience. As PaidContent recently wrote, "Hey Media Company. Buy BNO News. Now. Really."

Is there a business model for breaking news on Twitter? At first blush, you'd think not, since there doesn't seem to be any sort of business model for Twitter at the moment. But van Poppel may be a step ahead here, too. BNO now has an iPhone app that sells for $1.99—plus a 99-cent-per-month subscription fee. That might be a decent model to convince breaking news buffs to pay, gasp, a subscription fee for news on their phones (a natural mobile app). It will be interesting to see if BNO can make its subscription model work. At least it's trying.

In the meantime, Breaking News Online is another example of mainstream media being outflanked by an aggressive online startup. You'd think, given the popularity of Twitter among news types, that every major media outlet would have a mega-popular Twitter news operation. But only some do—and the rest are taking a backseat to a clever 19-year-old kid. Tweet that.

Addendum: Some Twitterati argue that inclusion on Twitter's Suggested User list—which new Twitter members see after signing up—skews the popularity of certain sites. Sure, the list—which has hundreds of suggestions, in random order—is probably one factor in driving popularity. But there are many others, and a big news organization that can only garner a few thousand Twitter followers is clearly just not taking advantage of the medium or marketing its feeds well (including lobbying Twitter for inclusion on the suggested list!). And now it appears Twitter is considering eliminating the Suggested Users list. That would level the playing field.