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 The old convenient package of news that landed on the driveway each morning or played on TV at dinnertime has been replaced by a cacophony of sources that can be overwhelming.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

My New Front Page—And Tina Brown’s

I've been noticing something about my news consumption over the past few months: While I've all but given up print newspapers over the past few years, rarely look at newspaper Web site home pages and consume a huge amount of my news via RSS feeds and Twitter, one site has emerged as my go-to "front page" for a smart overview of what's going on in the world: Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog.

Apparently I'm not alone: Sullivan's blog has been the biggest traffic draw on The Atlantic's Web site, accounting for fully a quarter of its traffic—and now Tina Brown has stolen Sullivan to be an anchor for her every-more-interesting Daily Beast/Newsweek hybrid.

Sullivan's blog, like any well-put-together, old-school front page, is an engaging smorgasbord of news (plus commentary) that provides readers with a guide to a wide range of topics. No, Sullivan doesn't create original copy, in the traditional sense. There's no original reporting going on here. Rather, The Dish is a well-curated, continually updated snapshot of the world, through the eyes of a polymath with a broad range of serious interests and his own set of personal hobbyhorses—which is pretty good description of just about any good front-page editor.

Sullivan and his small staff span the globe and the Web to bring readers dozens of short posts a day pointing to the best reporting and commentary on world events (the blog's coverage of the Egyptian uprising, from multiple angles, was superb, for instance), economics, society, culture and even humor. More often than not, the links are couched in a bit of commentary on the subject or the link's author. It's all good reading, and meat of each item is just a click away, on its originating site.

This is Web curation at its best, starring Sullivan as omnivorous, authoritative editor. Is it idiosyncratic at times? Sure—but all good front pages are. But it's also wildly readable, and an excellent way to keep up with a wide variety of important and/or interesting topics, with the ability to dive deeper at the click of a link.

This approach isn't necessarily as objective or "newsy" as a traditional front page, because of its heavy use of commentary. But it's bursting with personality, passion and wit, in ways many most front pages have long been missing. It's both informative and entertaining, and that makes it a must read—even if I don't always agree with Sullivan's opinions. 

The Daily Dish (like Jim Romenesko's indispensable Poynter journalism roundup) is why some of us get so excited about the Web's ability to remix a wide variety of news and commentary sources into aggregated, curated collections. They provide invaluable guides to the firehose of news and information we're all facing, picking out the best stuff and pointing us to it. That seems pretty obvious, but sites like Sullivan's and Romenesko's do it so well that they stand out. It's like having a smart friend constantly roaming the Web and sending you interesting links.

Tina Brown apparently recognizes the importance of this approach—and Sullivan's enormous following—and has annexed The Daily Dish for the Beast/Newsweek combo. Guess I'll have to redirect my bookmarks and RSS feeds to Sullivan's new digs. Like a great front page, it's become an essential part of my daily navigation of the flood of news.

 

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.

The Social Subscription

The argument between proponents of paywalls on news sites and those of us who are skeptical that news consumers will pay for anything but the most unique content rages on. But is there another path?

Reuters business journalist/blogger Felix Salmon thinks so. In a thought-provoking post, he wonders whether the real value to publishers and advertisers is not the pennies and registration data that might, maybe, be collected through online subscriptions—but the much deeper social data on readers that can be gleaned by analyzing their participation and connections in Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

I'm oversimplifying Salmon's argument. Let him make it:

[A]dvertisers, looking to reach a large audience online, are going to have to look past the simple question of whether or not people are paying for content. And they’re going to end up with a much more granular and useful way of working out who’s seeing their ads: social media.

The fact is that if I sign in to a free site using my Twitter login, I’m actually more valuable to advertisers than if I paid to enter that site. That’s because the list of people I follow on Twitter says a huge amount about me, and a smart media-buying organization can target ads at me which are much more narrowly focused than if all they knew about me was that I was paying to read the Times.

This is, of course, a variation of what proponents of online advertising have been arguing for years: That the trick to making money in online news (as it is in print, incidentally) is in selling advertisers highly targeted audiences at premium prices. Subscriptions sort of accomplish that by making it easier to identify audience members—but first you've got to get the audience to be willing to pay money to subscribe, and that's still a largely unproven (and largely unlikely, in my view) model. But by parsing a site visitor's social-network information, publishers can deliver all sorts of interesting targeting to advertisers.

There are privacy issues here, of course, as well as—as pointed out by one of Salmon's commenters—a question of just who ends up "owning" the reader. Is it the publisher? Or Facebook? Or does it matter?

But I think Salmon is onto something: a new model for monetizing audiences that breaks with simplistic old print paradigms (see audience; sell audience to advertisers; maybe try to charge audience) and takes advantage of the much more sophisticated data that social-networked site visitors are now carrying around with them. 

As Salmon says:

We’re not quite there yet. But it seems to me that online publications are making a big mistake if they make subscribers go through a dedicated registration and login process, because the demographic information they can get from that will be less useful and less accurate than if they outsource the reader-identification procedure to Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. And people will definitely enjoy an automatically personalized reading experience, where they can see what their Facebook friends are reading and what the people they follow on Twitter are reading.

Interesting stuff. Worth reading and thinking about.

Reader Comments, Hawaiian-Style

The subject is civil unions for gay couples. So you can expect the tone of the reader discussion to be highly charged, and even shocking. Try this inflammatory reader comment on for size:

Everyone's so damn reasonable on this site.

Yep, that's pretty shocking. A high-friction, high-emotion issue like civil unions—and the reader discussion is, indeed, "reasonable." 

What's going on here?

Welcome to Honolulu Civil Beat, the new site covering Hawaii from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and veteran editor John Temple. It's got a cockamamie paywall, er, membership plan—you can't read much on the site without ponying up $19.99 a month (good luck with that business model)—but the reader comments are outside the paywall, and true to the site's name, they're very "civil" indeed.

How come? Well, at a time when a chorus of news business voices is rising against the idea of anonymous comments on news sites (and rightly so), Civil Beat's subscription model is providing a foolproof antidote to anonymity: you can't comment without subscribing, and thus registering with the site's operators. Real names—or at least initials—are required, and enforced by membership registration. That certainly cleans up the level of discourse. 

But there's somethine else going on at Civil Beat that I think helps keep the level of discussion intelligent and friendly: the site's staff is actively participating in the conversations. You don't see that often at news sites, even on reporter blogs—too often, the comments are just a reaction to the story, and the author watches from a safe remove rather than mixing it up with readers. The results can be ugly.

In contrast, Civil Beat refers to its reporters as "reporter-hosts," and that's the magic: they're acting as emcees and participants in the conversation. This isn't just comments moderation—it's active participation. Not being a nanny, but being a member of the community. That instantly changes the tone of the conversation.

Dive into some of the site's comments areas to see what I mean: The civil unions discussion is here (along with some general talk about other topics—the site still has some work to do on focusing discussions around a topic). Here's one on homelessness, another hot-button topic on most sites. Note that the reporter-host—and even Omidyar and Temple themselves—are chiming in every few comments, reinforcing good behavior and gently guiding the conversation toward a level of constructive dialogue basically unheard of in most news-site comments areas.

News sites have found all sorts of ways to screw up comments over the years, usually by being incredibly naive about what it takes to run them properly. One of the biggest common sins is defaulting, all too often, to unregistered anonymity, which is why a lot of people now think that news sites need to go to much stronger levels of registration for reader participation. Why not? What have you got to lose? It can be as simple as simply asking commenters to register with their real names (yes, many will), or at least to use a consistent identity that can be confirmed behind the scenes—and policed if need be. Howard Owen has some smart things to say about this:

Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves….I strongly believe that news organizations that allow anonymous comments are committing a grievous ethical blunder. There is no justification or excuse for it. They are tarnishing their brand and credibility at a time they can least afford to devalue either.

For sure, Civil Beat's membership model, which effectively ends anonymity (you need a credit card to register), helps a lot. And it's early yet—maybe things will break down and the trolls will arrive as more people join the discussions (and as reporter-hosts get busier and less able to participate. I hope not). 

But this is a huge step in the right direction, and points toward a way toward fixing the cesspools that most news site comments areas have become. Editor Temple has a lot of other great ideas  for the site, and it will be fascinating to watch it innovate and evolve.

Civil Beat's slogan, as elucidated by founder Omidyar, is a very Hawaiian "Be cool. Be you. Be civil." It seems to be working. Mahalo.

PS: Scott Rosenberg has a little cautionary tale of what happens when news organizations don't participate in—or even read—their story comments.

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…

That Loud Yelp You Hear is Newspapers Being Squeezed—Again

There's something I've said in passing in a couple of posts and comments recently—and in any number of offline conversations—that bears highlighting: I believe that Yelp is doing the kind of fundamental damage to newspapers' traditional local entertainment listing and reviewing role that craigslist did to classifieds.

I'm not the only one making this point. Paul Smalera made a great argument about Yelp's dominance in Slate's The Big Money recently, and Peter Krasilovsky raised the spectre of Yelp reaching critical mass as far back as November.

What's happening is that Yelp now has enough crowdsourced participants and reviews of enough businesses in enough markets to be a truly useful tool in trying to decide what to do for entertainment (and more). Combined with search and geo-location (Yelp's iPhone app is indispensable), Yelp is becoming a very powerful tool. 

That's a big deal for newspapers, which long have touted their allegedly encyclopedic knowledge of the local scene, as well as their restaurant and entertainment reviewers. But why grapple with clumsy newspaper entertainment-guide and calendar interfaces, and take the word of a single, over-stretched reviewer, when you can quickly see what the crowd is saying on Yelp about the place you want to go? And as Yelp expands its reach beyond restaurants and entertainment locations into other local businesses, it's becoming even more valuable. Advertisers will be sure to follow.

The last really defensible franchise for newspapers is local news and information, and local entertainment, dining and business listings and guides are a critical part of that franchise—especially in the ways they can attract advertisers. But if Yelp is providing a better, easier to use mousetrap, just as craigslist did with classifieds, newspapers are going to lose big. Yet again.

Choices in Charm City

What happens in a city when its newspaper dies? I've written about this question before, and it's a topic that more and more people are starting to discuss openly as big papers struggle. I continue to think the answer is something that would greatly surprise those who think newspapers are practically the only source of local news. There already are plenty of alternatives—and many more to come.

I spoke this week on a panel in Baltimore called "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" sponsored by the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It was a particularly timely panel in Baltimore: The Baltimore Sun is pretty emaciated these days after multiple layoffs and cutbacks, and unfortunately it's one of those papers that shows up near the top of newspaper-watchers' private lists of big-city papers that appear to be particularly endangered. Baltimore could very well be a test case for questions posed in the panel's title, perhaps sooner rather than later. 

The other participants were an impressive bunch: Baltimore Sun Editor Monty Cook, former Editor Tim Franklin, WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller and Baltimore African-American Publisher Jake Oliver. The moderator was Merrill College Dean Kevin Klose, former head of NPR (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post.) For the most part, not surprisingly, this august crowd with deep local roots couldn't even imagine a Baltimore without its Sun, and as a result there was a bit too much of the usual printie breastbeating about how only large metro newspapers can provide real local coverage.

Hogwash. And when my turn came to speak, I set out to prove it. For my presentation, I played show and tell: I cued up a couple dozen Web sites that already are providing coverage of Baltimore, right under the Sun's nose, and took the panel and audience on a rapid-fire tour of Baltimore's media ecosystem, circa 2009. It was hardly a comprehensive list—I'm sure I missed dozens if not hundreds of other blogs, hyperlocal sites, verticals and others that are already–and that's a key point—replacing the Sun as key sources of local information. Back to the panel's title: "Who will fill the void?" It's already being filled.

I've gotten some requests for the list of sites I showed, so I'll go straight to the examples and, as I did on the panel, let them do the talking, along with a bit of commentary about why I picked them:

I started with the Sun's site. It's your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site. Then I talked about other traditional media that have always provided local competition to the Sun, in print and broadcast: Miller's WBAL-TV, Oliver's Afro-American, the alt-weekly City Paper and Baltimore's excellent business and legal paper, the Daily Record. All cover communities, beats and stories the Sun doesn't get to—and have done so for years. Of course, I didn't even mention the other local TV and radio sites, ethnic papers, community weeklies, college papers, etc. These are longstanding members of the local media ecosystem in Baltimore that belie the notion that the metro daily is the only news and info source in town.

But that doesn't even begin to get to the newer players. I started with a handful of local news sites and blogs: Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Crime, Investigative Voice, BmoreNews, BlogBaltimore, InsideCharmCity. All of these are providing a window into Baltimore life; many are doing the kind of deep-dive local reporting that traditionalists seem to think is the exclusive province of metro newspapers. 

Then I pointed out some local vertical sites whose coverage areas map to (or go beyond) sections of the newspaper and serve specific local interests: Baltimore Real Estate Investing, Baltimore Injury Lawyer (whose "What's an Ear Worth?" headline got a big laugh), Gannett's MomsLikeMe and KidBaltimore. Local entertainment, nightlife and city guide sites: 600 Block, What's to Eat Baltimore? and Yelp, of course (which I think is now quietly doing the same sort of fundamental damage to local newspapers' entertainment, calendar and review franchises that craigslist did to classifieds a few years ago). And a couple from the endless list of local sports sites: CamdenChat, one of at least a dozen local fan blogs that covers and opines about the Orioles; and Baltimore Ravens, which I picked because it's a news and information site run by the NFL team, without any sort of journalistic filters. That's another new kind of competition for reader eyeballs the Web has made possible: direct publishing by the sources of news themselves. 

I showed some sites that aggregate local info: Localist; Examiner.com's local site, which pulls together bloggers and "examiners" writing about subjects inside and outside Baltimore (one of 60 such sites Examiner has built around the country, with so-so results, but uniquely positioned to move in with established sites if newspapers start to fail); Twitter, to show people talking about everything Baltimore (Twitter coverage of the panel is here, btw); and Outside.In, compiling content from myriad local blogs.

I also wanted to show the Baltimore audience that there's other interesting local work being done elsewhere: the terrific VoiceofSanDiego, which is doing the kind of local watchdog reporting that many journalists—including some on the Baltimore panel—somehow think can only come from newspapers, and its big-city counterparts around the country, like MinnPost, ChiTown Daily News. and the New Haven Independent. To show local community coverage on a smaller scale,  I trotted out Baristanet and WestportNow, two of the longest-running examples of the hundreds of hyperlocal sites now providing news and information for small towns. For a glimpse of what happens when technology is brought to bear on local information, I showed Everyblock and Fwix, with their unique ways of mapping voluminous local data and news.

As I said, this whirlwhind tour just scratched the surface—it literally took me only about 15 minutes on
Google and Outside.in to find my local Baltimore examples, and I know that I missed many, many others (apologies to proprietors of those sites for the omission; hell, the list of blogs started by ex-Sun staffers is a whole category unto itself!). And there are plenty more examples to come—after the panel I spoke to an experienced local entrepreneur who's planning an ambitious Baltimore online news effort, and I'm sure he's hardly unique.

The point is that the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point. The replacements already are serving the audience the paper used to have to itself, and there are more in the wings. Are there business models to support all of this new media? Not yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information. And besides—and this really befuddles traditionalists—some of the people who run these upstarts sites aren't even in it for the money. They're providing coverage of their city and specific topics because they love the place where they live and the specific subjects they cover, not because they're motivated by profit. That's a very interesting turn of events, and especially tough for big-iron, expensive legacy media to compete with.  

Baltimore is hardly unique—the demonstration I did can be done effectively in any city. I strongly suggest that traditional media executives—and anybody who doubts that newspapers be replaced—spend some time trying to find and understand this new competition. It's out there, no question. There's more to come. The big-city daily newspaper, already on its heels, is hardly the only game in town. If and when it disappears, there will be plenty of replacements.

PS: Writing on Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor makes a clever point that the Baltimore symposium proved that events get covered even when newspapers don't cover them.