“Audience First” and Other Lessons in Disruptive Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

And That’s The Way It Is

With the passing of Walter Cronkite, it will be interesting to see if there's a media frenzy that's anything like the over-the-top orgy of coverage and tributes the accompanied Tim Russert's death last summer. Cronkite was 10 times the journalist and historic figure that Russert was. But I suspect he won't get one-tenth the coverage. How sad. I hope I'm wrong.

R.I.P. Walter.

PS: Sitcom writer/sportscaster Ken Levine has a terrific and appropriately terse appreciation of Cronkite.

How Useful (and Usable) is Your Site?

The always-great John Temple has a valuable post today urging senior-level news executives to stay away from their print editions for a couple of weeks (painful as that may be for some). He suggests that they try relying solely on the Web for a while to get a better idea of how their increasingly digital audience is consuming news and information these days. 

If they would try this, I think newspaper executives would quickly see flaws in their offerings and would also more clearly understand the flood tide that is running. I'm not writing to criticize specifically what papers are doing online. Only to say that my experience being outside a newspaper tells me that other executives while they still have a chance might want to experience the world without their newspaper. I believe it would hasten their sense of urgency. I'm not talking about a sense of urgency about revenue. We know that's there in most buildings in this economic downturn. But is it there to the same degree in understanding audience and what's available to people today? Is it there in making sure their offerings stack up?

It's an excellent suggestion, and I'd take it a step farther: Every editor and publisher should spend some time trying to use their Web site the same ways that readers do, to truly find out what the user experience is for a site visitor. I think they'd get a jarring education in just how crappy and hard to use many (most? all?) newspaper sites are.

In fact, here's a little test that you can give your newspaper or broadcast site to find out how well it's serving the typical user. Try this list of tasks to see how your site measures up. I don't think you'll like what you see.
  1. Without using search, find continuing, in-context coverage of a long-running local story.
  2. Similarly (again, without using search), find a comprehensive package of information (even a collection of past stories) about a significant local icon or personality.
  3. Locate all the coverage and information on the site about a specific local town. 
  4. Starting on a story page (not the home page) quickly find other key information, e.g. the day's top headlines or most-read stories. (Remember, the vast number of readers don't enter your site from the home page, though print-focused newsies obsess about home pages.)
  5. Find a list of the best local restaurants, or ratings and reviews of a particular kind of cuisine, preferably by locality (extra credit: user reviews). BTW: This is why Yelp is really hurting newspapers.
  6. Find a local movie listing, or better yet, a local theater listing and review (extra credit: user reviews).
  7. Find something a family can do for fun this weekend. 
  8. Find any location mentioned on the site on a map—wait, no, you're not allowed to leave the site. No MapQuest or Google maps! 
  9. Using the site's search function, search for a term you know appeared in the newspaper in the past 24 hours. 
  10. Subscribe to your site's mobile alert function (you have one, right?) and see if it's truly useful. While you're at it, be sure to look at your site regularly on its iPhone or mobile version (you have one, right). Is it updated as frequently as the main site? 
  11. Find something in the paper's archives.
  12. How easy is it to e-mail a story, or print it out, or view it on a single page?  
  13. Find a way to quickly contact a specific reporter, or an editor, or anybody at the paper. 
  14. Find an ad you know is on the site. (This drives advertisers nuts, incidentally.) 
  15. How easy is it to place a classified ad online—or to buy any kind of ad?
  16. How easy is it to manage your print subscription online?
  17. Using the site's search function, search for just about anything in the list above.
  18. Now, try the same searches from Google.
I suspect very few traditional news sites will get even close to a passing grade on this test. You'll find that it takes four or five clicks to find that theater review and show time, or a list of the best restaurants (if it exists at all). You'll discover that there's no package of stories about the mayor. You'll be painfully aware of how inadequate your search function is. You'll see why your readers throw up their hands when they try to contact you with a problem, or to buy an ad. You'll realize that vast expanses of your site are all but invisible to Google.

Your readers already know all of this, and it drives them nuts—and it drives them away. These are basic blocking and tackling elements of good site design and usability, but newspaper sites—thrown together haphazardly over the years, without a good sense of what works on the Web and too many legacy bad habits from the print world—come up very, very short. This is how the increasing number of online-dominant readers view your news product. As John Temple said, you need to take a step back from print and view your site through their eyes.

Extra credit: This one's harder to do because it happens infrequently, but next time there's a major breaking news story in your area, try following it entirely through your site. If something's happening during the work day, that's where readers are going—not to local television. Similarly, if a major local news story breaks overnight, your site is the place people are going to look for information that's not going to make the next morning's paper.

There was an unfortunate example of the wrong way to cover breaking local news this week in Connecticut, where an ugly divorce-related hostage situation spilled over into the late-night hours. Most of the state's newspapers and TV stations didn't bother with it or used wires, but the Hartford Courant and New London Day sites stayed with it—up to a point. 

Even though the story's fiery ending came after midnight, the Courant's coverage weirdly signed off at about 10 pm (damn those Tribune Co. budget cuts). The Day stuck with it 'til the end, but its online coverage—like the Courant's abortive coverage—was disjointed, uneven and at times hard to comprehend, with copy that read like a strange combination of news story and newsblog, wild changes in tense, outdated information and an overwhelming sense that nobody in the newsroom was actually reading what was on the site. (And note to The Day: hitting "next" on a photo gallery should show the next photo, not reload the entire story page.) 

I'll bet traffic at both sites spiked because of interest in the dramatic situation. But the readers who came to those sites to find out what was going on deserved much better. Yes, a breaking news situation is hard to corral. But if you're going to try to cover breaking news online, think about serving the reader as well as possible, not just shoveling information onto the site and figuring you can clean it up in the next print edition. That's too way late.

This Just In: Michael Jackson, Still Dead

There's been a nagging suspicion in many enlightened journalistic quarters that the Michael Jackson story has been massively overplayed in the media, especially by TV news (even NBC Nightly News led with the story most nights last week, which was ridiculous). 

It was quite apparent that Baby Boomer media managers—out of touch with popular culture and audience interest, but obsessed with a performer from their youth who hasn't been relevant for years—were staying with the Jackson story even though they didn't understand that people really were over it. Indeed, Jeff Jarvis supplied some great data last week that showed that, measured by hard data on Internet searches and blog conversations, interest in all things Jackson had dropped precipitously after the first couple of days.

But the TV talking heads and cameras and helicopters droned on, providing unrelenting coverage on most of the major networks of a story that basically was over once the coroner declared the singer dead. This culminated with live coverage by most networks today of Jackson's funeral, in LA, replete with breathless predictions that hundreds of thousands of mourners would pack the streets around the Staples Center for his memorial service.

Um, not so much. The AP reports:

The traffic snarls and logistical nightmares that had been feared by police and city officials had not materialized. The thousands of fans with tickets began filing in early and encountered few problems, and traffic was actually considered by police to be lighter than normal.

"I think people got the message to stay home," said California Highway Patrol Officer Miguel Luevano. "When you have people staying home, it clears up those freeways."

Deputy Police Chief Sergio Diaz, operations chief for the event, said authorities had expected a crowd of 250,000. Besides reporters and those with tickets to the memorial service, the crowd around the Staples Center perimeter numbered only about 1,000, he said.

Only 1,000 people? When 250,000 were expected? That's some lousy predicting, but it was doubtless fed by media hype. We haven't seen the ratings yet on today's wall-to-wall coverage, but I suspect they're going to be similarly paltry (there's some indications of heavy Web traffic to streaming video of the memorial service, but that may reflect a curiosity factor that's going on while people are at work). Jackson's death was a big story, but it was over in a day or two. By sticking with it and flogging it, big media showed, once again, that it's out of step with its audience.

Update: Turns out the Jackson memorial service was boffo on the Internet. Go figure. But I suspect that had a lot to do with it happening while people were at work, and streaming the video on their office PCs. (Hell, I watched it, out of morbid curiosity.) As Dan Woog notes in the comments, Facebook saw a bunch of MJ-related activity, too, though nothing close to the Obama inauguration. But I think the lack of crowds in LA was very telling. And I hope that the story will just go away now. At least until the toxicology report is in!

The People Have Spoken

Nothing really new here, except that the numbers are becoming overwhelming: a new Zogby poll finds that most Americans prefer the Internet as a news source—more so than newspapers, TV and radio combined. Oh, and they consider the Internet more reliable than those other media, as well.

As if that wasn't bad enough news for the traditionalists, get this: only 1 in 200 of those surveyed—you read that right, 1 in 200, or one half of 1 percent—believe that newspapers will be a "dominant source" of news within five years. Would somebody please remember to turn out the lights in the pressroom?

Some interesting breakdowns within the numbers, though. Newspaper Web sites do well, with 41 percent of respondents describing them as important sources of news. Facebook scored 10 percent; Twitter scored 4 percent.

The usual caveats: 3,000 respondents, 1.8 percent margin of error. But that's still not enough to make the future of newspapers look any brighter. The readers are voting with their feet—or their fingertips and mice.

Hat tip to Greg Sterling for spotting this.

The Daily Show and The New York Times

The Daily Show’s skewering of the newspaper business in general and The New York Times in particular was spectacular. Highlight—though some might not see it exactly that way: Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones asking Timesman Rick Berke to point out one thing in the “aged news” print newspaper that actually happened today. Um, um, um…

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Not pretty. But as we used to say in the newsroom in a slightly different context, truth is a defense. And in this case, savagely funny as hell.