Old-School Newspapering

You may have already seen this—it's been making the rounds over the past day or two—but it's great: A scarifyingly hilarious story in which a group of modern-day college journalism students produce a newspaper the old-fashioned way—you know, the way those of us of a certain age did it back in the day. With typewriters, darkrooms, layout sheets and other antique stuff (they failed to find a hot waxer, though. Pity).

Man, do I feel old. If anybody needs me, I'll be reading the news on my iPad, thank you very much. What is this "paper" stuff you speak of? Now get off my damn lawn, you kids. 


Read It and Weep

I wonder sometimes if the people who run news organizations actually look at their own Web sites.

I mean, look at them the way readers do. Use them to find out what's going on, to get the news, to search for needed information. I ask because a lot of big-name news Web sites occasionally seem designed to frustrate readers as much as possible.

I'm not just talking about bad design, endless lists of small-type headlines or site searches that simply don't work, often in comical ways. Those are all sins, of course, and they're chronic. Brad Colbrow added a few more in an excellent post last week, including missing links, incredibly jumbled templates and photo thumbnails that click through to…photo thumbnails. There are other good gripes in the comments on his post.

I'll add a few myself: Pages that load incredibly slowly and/or erratically—you know, so that when you click on the link you want, items jumping around on the still-building page cause you to accidentally click something else. Or how about those maddening 30-second pre-roll ads, not just on videos, but even on slideshows, for crying out loud (I'll bet the stats triumphantly show the item was clicked, but fail to note that many readers are long gone three seconds into the commercial.) Or how about faulty Flash-laden ads or content packages that unfailingly crash the visitor's browser?

There's a good one in Colbrow's post that drives me nuts: random links to vaguely related stories or galleries, inserted into body text every couple of grafs to break up story flow (magazine sites, never the brightest examples of digital thinking, are principal offenders here). How did anybody think this was a good idea? I saw one today that's a really unfortunate howler:

(That's from a Time story that ran on Yahoo, but Yahoo added the oddly juxtaposed link, which wasn't in Time's original.)

These things aren't just embarrassing. They all make news sites harder to read and harder to want to come back to. Readers are smart. They know when they're seeing sloppy work, and with unlimited choices in the digital world, they'll take their eyeballs elsewhere.

News sites don't seem to understand that user interface and user experience are critically important online. Instead, they're rife with this sort of sloppy stuff. That's why I wonder whether the people who run news sites read them regularly. Then they'd notice these things that drives readers away and exert a little more quality control.


Is the Alacarticle the Answer to Selling Content Online?

Could it be that publishers are looking at the notion of charging for online content all wrong?

To date, just about all the talk and experiments with paid content have involved selling online subscriptions or, on the iPad, individual issues. Makes sense, since that's how publishers historically have sold their print versions. Or, actually, it doesn't make sense, because many of us believe that online customers who can find equivalent free content elsewhere will simply ignore the publishers' subscription/single-copy offers.

We need more empirical evidence to prove or disprove these theories and settle this religious debate, but so far, only a handful of specialized sites have made online subscriptions work, the jury is still out on The New York Times' much-watched Web subscription effort and single-copy magazine sales on the iPad started strong and then sputtered in most cases.

But maybe there's another model: selling content by the article.

Last week, Fortune magazine published a big takeout on Apple—and held it off the magazine's Web site. Instead, it made Inside Apple available as a downloadable file for Amazon's Kindle, at 99 cents a pop. 

By all accounts, it sold like hotcakes, even reaching the Top 10 in Amazon's Kindle bestseller list. Behold: the a la carte article. Let's call it the alacarticle.

The alacarticle may not be the ultimate answer to legacy media's online revenue woes—no one solution is. But Fortune's experience, while a limited sample, of course, seems to indicate that readers will pay by the story, under the right conditions.

For years, some publishers have babbled hopefully about "micropayments," a term none of them really seemed to be able to define. Theoretically, I think, it meant that any article could be sold for a few pennies, but the publishers could never quite figure out how to actually collect those pennies (long-established online payment systems like, oh, PayPal, Amazon and iTunes being just a tad too futuristic for these publishers to grasp, apparently). 

For all the talk about the micropayment idea, the problem is that, even with the long tail, there's not a big market for the vast majority of articles, and too much free competition. Advertising is still a much better bet for mass-market online publishing revenue, as it always has been in print.

But there may be a market for certain, high-interest, high-value articles, as Fortune is demonstrating. If the (excellent) argument against online subscriptions is that readers can usually find pretty much the same news and information elsewhere, for free, then maybe Fortune's alacarticle experiment shows that there may still be specific stories or packages that could be held off the Web and made available as Kindle or iBook downloads, or apps.

The number of potential stories that fit this model is small—they probably have to be major and exclusive—and there's a calculable tradeoff in lost traffic and associated ad sales. But the Fortune experiment points to a new way of selling content that lets customers buy just a story they want, rather than a broad subscription they may not care for. Other examples are appearing as well: Long-form journalism site Byliner is also selling content by the story for Kindle and iPad, incidentally. And ProPublica's "Wall Street Money Machine" investigation was just made available as a 99-cent Kindle download.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because there's a parallel in the recent evolution of the music industry, which found its favorite form of distribution, the album, unbundled by iTunes so that customers could buy just the songs they wanted, individually. The music industry is still grumbling about this, but selling songs a la carte is preferable to not selling albums at all. Maybe that's also true of selling alacarticles, as opposed to subscriptions. It's giving the customers what they want, at a price they're willing to pay. What a concept.




Understanding the Business of Journalism: The Columbia J-School Report

Everybody in journalism should spend time reading Columbia Journalism School's voluminous new report on the digital journalism business. Bill Grueskin and team have done a superb job of surveying and encapsulating, in very clear (and clear-eyed) language, the current state of the online journalism business, including a wealth of interesting examples and case studies.

It's hard to summarize the many findings here, many of which have been clear to a lot of us for a long time. At the risk of oversimplifying, I'd say the report concludes that there's money to be made in digital journalism, that there are online news sites making money (usually by keeping costs very low), and that the onus is on legacy journalism businesses to double-down further reinvent themselves to adapt to the revolutionary changes in the industry.

But probably the best conclusion in the study is a striking quote from Randall Rothenberg, the former New York Times reporter who now runs the Internet Advertising Bureau: 

"Here's the problem: Journalists just don't understand their business."

Amen to that. I'm becoming more involved in teaching business and entrepreneurialism to journalists (I taught an entrepreneurialism course at University of Maryland this semester, I'm leading a session on business at a Knight Digital Media Center journalist "boot camp" next week, etc.) for precisely that reason: It's critically important that journalists become more business-literate and understand how their business works. Reading the Columbia report will go a long way towards educating journalists about their business, what's happening to it, and how to start fixing it.

The Instant iPad App

For publishers, iPad apps are all the rage these days. Everybody's developing whizbang apps to take advantage of Apple's popular tablet—even though, when you get right down to it, most of the apps aren't huge improvements over the publications' existing Web sites, which are just a touch away on an iPad screen. Still every newspaper and magazine wants to have its own iPad app, so they're spending zillions to develop them, business models be damned.

But do you really need to build your own app? It turns out there are other tools out there that can create good-looking apps, from publisher's feeds, at minimal cost. Three of the best-known ones are Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, which create slick, high-quality iPad publications from various combinations of users' Twitter and RSS feeds. Good stuff, and I'm surprised we haven't seen publishers license private-label versions of these platforms to create cheap, easy iPad apps for themselves.

And now WordPress has made creating a news app—or at least an iPad-compatible blog—even easier. Got an iPad? Got a WordPress blog? Check out your blog in Safari on the iPad, and prepare to be amazed. (If you don't have a WordPress blog handy, here's a good hyperlocal one, by my friend Dan Woog, from whom I first heard about this trick. Sorry, I can't help you if you don't have an iPad!)

Very quietly, WordPress has rolled out a nice iPad "Onswipe" theme for all 18 million of its blogs, automatically making them iPad-friendly. You get a nice title page, an iPad-like layout of posts, and the ability to swipe across the screen to change pages—all requisite features of any good iPad app, all automatic for any WordPress blog. The popular blogging platform has had a similarly good-looking, simplified mobile version for smartphones for a while now. No muss, no fuss—instant compatibility with the latest in mobile computing.

The point is, you don't need a team of developers to create a good-looking iPad app or iPad-friendly site for your publication. Why waste the money building a custom app? WordPress, like Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, is proving that a simple, universal iPad-in-a-box solution may be a much better way to bring publications quickly and easily into the tablet age. 


The New York Times’ Porous Paywall

I think there's a rule today that every media-business blogger has to weigh in on the New York Times' finally announced online subscription plan, and I'm going to do my part by deferring to Felix Salmon's excellent analysis, which I think is spot on:

What does all this mean for the New York Times Company? I can’t see how it’s good. … By my back-of-the-envelope math, the paywall won’t even cover its own development costs for a good two years, and beyond that will never generate enough money to really make a difference to NYTCo revenues. Maybe that might change if the NYT breaks its promise to offer full website access for free to all print subscribers. But that decision would be fraught in all manner of other ways.

For the time being, though, I just can’t see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?

Agreed—this really looks like small potatoes, perhaps just a sop to virulent "we must get paid!" factions within the Times. I think it's just porous enough that it won't affect more than a small number of die-hard Times readers—and I'll bet most of them are already subscribers to the print edition, and thus will get the online version at a weird discount

Me, I'm in the latter camp—I still get the printed Sunday Times, so the online version will be free for me. Truth be told, as much as I'm a fan of the Times, I can't imagine paying for the online edition. As with the Wall Street Journal, the Times paywall appears to be porous enough that I'll be able to read what I want, through links and the occasional site visit, without triggering the subscription bar.

Critically, I understand that what I pay for when I subscribe to the print edition is printing and delivery of the paper. Those physical production costs don't exist online (per the comments below, advertising foots the bill for the journalism), and thus I don't understand why I'd pay $15 a month for NYTimes.com.

In any case, as Salmon says, it doesn't appear this is going to make a material impact on the Times' finances. Which really makes you wonder what the point of it all is, except maybe to make some sort of "we must be paid" statement. Sorry: Just wanting to be paid does not a business model make.



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.


When the News Gets Old

Post Front

It's no secret that in a world of news at Twitter speed, print seems to be getting left farther and farther behind. Like others, I've written about this a couple times previously, and of course there was the Daily Show's fabulously snarky take on "aged news" a couple of years ago.

But the stunning, thrilling events of the past few hours in Egypt have highlighted, yet again, how much the news business has changed, and how bad newspapers look as a result. Newspapers were printed last night—barely making deadline as it was, because the story broke fairly late—with headlines blaring that Hosni Mubarak was refused to step down in Egypt.

But with the ink still drying this morning, those papers quickly became woefully out of date. Their Web sites have been updated with the news of Mubarak's resignation, of course, but the papers were still selling print editions that were, well, wrong. Guess they'll correct it in tomorrow's paper. (To give credit where credit is due, incidentally, Rupert Murdoch's iPad news app, The Daily, has quickly broken free of the strictures of its name and begun offering more frequent updates.)

This wasn't really a problem for newspapers a generation or so ago. Back then, they were pretty much the only source of news, save for TV coverage (at least of important events) and radio news. But the advent of the Web, Twitter, mobile news apps, multiple cable news channels and any number of other new competitors is more and more rendering print newspapers, in their traditional form, obsolete.

The fast-breaking Mubarak story is an unfortunate example of how horribly behind the times newspapers can seem (and I don't just mean their management). But the truth is, smaller examples of print news obsolescence now appear multiple times throughout newspapers, as stories change after presstime. They simply can't keep up with the faster news competitors surrounding them anymore.

What are newspapers to do? A couple thoughts: First, maybe it's time for papers to stop trying to be the snapshot of the previous day's events. Rather than print information that's almost instantly out of date, they should concentrate on providing more analysis, perspective, context, non-news-pegged features and forward-looking coverage—much like a newsmagazine. That would require a major change in editor-think, but it would better reflect the new world. The whole "newspaper of record" thing is now pretty passé.

More fundamentally, this is an argument for papers to double down on their quicker digital news-delivery products. They need to finally come to grips with the idea that the product to which they still devote the vast majority of their resources—that print edition—shouldn't be getting primacy in management attention and resource allocation. Unfortunately, in just about every newspaper newsroom I know of, the digital version is very much a second-class citizen, while most of the attention still goes to putting out a product that's immediately out of date. That strikes me as poor priortization. The news—and the audience—now exist in a real-time digital world. Shouldn't that be where resources are focused? The print edition should be the afterthought.

One personal story from today's events in Egypt: Just after Mubarak announced his resignation, I tore myself away from watching Al Jazeera TV's terrific coverage to take my car down to a local service station for a state inspection. The guy who does the inspections is Egyptian—and he greeted me at the service bay door holding a smartphone tuned to Al  Jazeera TV. He had a giant smile on his face. "Did you hear the news? Did you hear the news?" he exulted. I told him I had, and congratulated him on the triumph of his people.

Of course, if he'd relied on the "news' in the printed Washington Post being sold a few feet away, he wouldn't have known about his country's liberation. 


PS: In some ways, this is even worse: The online version of The Wall Street Journal's print front page gives no hint that the news had changed since the paper was set in type last night. (This screenshot was taken nearly 12 hours after Mubarak resigned.)


That's really inexcusable. Yeah, sure, that "In Today's Paper" page on WSJ.com is supposed to be the representation of the print edition. But it's an HTML page, not a PDF, and thus can be updated. Would it be so hard to add a line below the lead story pointing to the latest developments elsewhere on the site? That's just odd.


As the old joke goes, I'm shocked but not surprised by the smothering of TBD.com. 

Founder and president Jim Brady's departure, three months ago, amid frustration with meddling and bad decision-making by executives at corporate parent Albritton Communications, was a gigantic warning sign, of course. For all intents and purposes, Jim was TBD's heart and soul. Without him, the end was probably inevitable.

But those of us who were following the project closely, through friendships and business relationships, had begun worrying about TBD's longterm viability even before it launched. First trouble sign: when the site's smart GM, Whitney Patton, walked out last summer, frustrated by interference from clueless sales executives at Allbritton. And in the past few weeks, top site talents like product development whiz Bageshri Ghate and managing editor Paul Volpe have departed as well; other TBD stars have been actively looking.

So today's news that TBD will be folded into local TV parent WJLA is not really a surprise. But it's still a shock that such an important, innovative experiment in the future of local news coverage is being snuffed out so quickly. It shows an incredible lack of vision by parent company Allbritton Communications.

This was the biggest-budget effort to reinvent local news, and it didn't even survive a year. Way to innovate, Allbritton. Could TBD's leaders have done a better job with the product? Sure—it never really seemed to capture the local vibe, and it was always too city-centric and ignorant of the Washington suburbs. Was the name a disaster? Oh yeah. Like all startups, it had growing pains. 

But I hear TBD was doing just fine, thank you, in terms of traffic, meeting and exceeding its projections. It probably wasn't making its ad numbers—but that's doubtless because the TV people who muscled into the site's ad sales didn't really know what they were doing. Hint: You don't try to sell a local blog network on a blog-by-blog basis. (Oh yes they did!) And if you can't then figure out how to monetize that blog network with run-of-site ads, well…

The Allbritton people, led by CEO Robert Allbritton, said all the right things at the outset about giving TBD time to find its audience and grow—but they did little to back up those promises. Indeed, there were troubling early signs that jealous TV station execs were working behind the scenes to cripple their own startup. (Otherwise, why do the absolute minimum to promote it on-air?) Typical old-media stupidity and shenanigans. What a pity.

TBD was important, as I've written before, as an effort to find a new model for local news. By cleverly building a network of more than 200 independent local blogs around a skeleton staff of journalists and community managers, TBD was laying a path for a next-generation online metro newspaper (and broadcast) replacement that offered much broader coverage, relevance and reach at a fraction of the traditional cost of covering a large market. The model was completely sound (minus old-media meddling), and some smart entrepreneur or VC or media company will take it and run with it. You can bet on that.

I'll leave it to Jim Brady and others tell the full horror stories about what went on inside TBD—the insane battles over who should sell advertising, and to whom; the choking of the site's innovative blog network; the utter failure to promote the site in the Washington market; the creeping dominance by know-nothing TV people; the crazy, irrational personnel machinations that finally drove Jim out the door.

But as Brady tweeted today: "At good companies, the people who resist necessary change are pushed aside. At bad companies, they are put in charge." In other words, once again, the retrograde forces of old media have won–indeed, arguably, TBD, from the start, was DOA. But in the long run, by stifling this sort of innovation, they can only lose.

Update: TBD Editor Erik Wemple is quoted by Nieman Journalism Lab as saying:  “I think that we will continue to emphasize and to engage the community in a way that is very competitive with the industry and industry standards. … I think that 99 percent of the people won’t really notice too much of a change.” 

Frankly, I doubt it—TBD as we know it is over if it's subsumed into WJLA-TV. Brady, who's still very, very close to his erstwhile staff at TBD, tweets: "I love my @TBD peeps, but the 'everything will be OK' tweet does not reflect how people feel. They can't say it, but I can. Not good 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.