links for 2010-04-30

  • Judith Towend at journalism.co.uk talks about Ruby in the Pub, a meeting of developers and journalists. "The evening was also a meeting of cultures; as journalists explained their various work brick walls and developers explained the differences between various coding languages and platforms." It's really important for journalists and developers to work together. I've spent a lot of my career with feet in both camps, being a working journalist while testing new technology on the fly. It has been a rare position. There are misunderstandings in both camps, but hopefully, this type of cultural exchange can change that.

    Most useful for me was hearing about the projects developers are implementing in their respective organisations and the tools they are using.

  • Kevin: As a journalist, I found that engaging users around journalism was as much of an art as a science. It took an understanding on how online communities operate that isn't always intuitive or easily explained, especially to those not familiar with online community dynamics. I'm not sure that I agree with all of these points, especially the issue about being effective and having 95% of people hating you. I think that it confuses and inadequately explains what it means to be effective and what it means to have impact. However, there is a lot of good food for thought.
  • Kevin: The Huffington Post takes another step in its journey to become a social media site by adding badges. It's really a recognition of the different roles that users play on the site, and it adds yet another bit of social functionality that if common on social networking sites. However, the focus of the HuffPo's social functionality is definitely around the concept of interaction around media as the social objects.
  • Kevin: A good brief overview from my former colleague Alf Hermida about whether some of the new foundation-funded journalism institutions in the US need new ethics. I think this is more about new institutions than the traditional definition of new media. However, it's a good look at whether new rules should apply in terms of transparency for these foundation-funded organisations and other new kinds of journalism organisations as they are launched.

Five counterintuitive rules for building community

“Communities aren’t built through grand visions,” says Julian Dobson his a great post about community building. A grand vision is nice ‘n all, but it takes action to build a community and there’s a skill in knowing which actions are the right ones. Julian runs through a list of five, and I think all of them are applicable to business communities as much as third sector communities. For example:

2. If you want to be a leader, start by serving.

Creating community, by definition, isn’t about ego. There’s no room for celebrities. Leaders prove their worth by mucking in and helping out. You win respect by being ready to serve. If you’re out to make a name for yourself, why should anyone trust you?

If you want to start a brand community or an internal community of interest, think about how you would engage with it and what you could do for others in that community. How would you serve others?

Julian’s post is very thought provoking, even more so when you put it in the context of enterprise community building.

A game of email

Johnny Holland Stephen Anderson discusses in some considerable detail how it might be possible to add game-like behaviours to email to help people be more effective and achieve Inbox Zero more easily. It’s a very interesting post and I’d love someone to go ahead and build an email client that takes these ideas on board. I think it would be fascinating to see how we might remake our relationship to one of the most pervasive communications medium of the modern world.

But Holland Anderson doesn’t even mention the most important problem: That we send far too much unnecessary email for reasons which are emotional rather than logical. Encouraging people to process their email more effectively is only half the battle. We need to remove as much content as possible from the email system, especially newsletters, notices, FYIs and other forms of occupational spam. We need to empower people not to cover their ass, not to CC their entire department, and not to get sucked into endless and pointless – but very polite – conversations by email.

Until we learn to send less email, learning how to process it is only going to give us a false sense of success and may even encourage us to, well, send more email.

links for 2010-04-28

  • Kevin: Apart from The Wall Street Journal which managed to eke out a small 0.5% increase in circulation in the last six months. The decline, for some titles precipitous, in newspaper circulation continues. LA Times, -14.74%; Washington Post -13.06%; Dallas Morning News -21.47%; and the San Diego Union-Tribune -22.68%. Ouch. Some newspaper groups are returning to profitability. The deep cuts have reduced their cost base, but without a stop to these circulation losses, they will need to do something else.
  • Kevin: Roy gives a good overview of the newly formed Bureau of Investigative Journalism here in the UK. "(Editor Iain) Overton stressed that there would be no political agenda. The bureau's main focus would be on scrutinising government and big business. So it's a high-minded exercise that emulates the pioneering ProPublica initiative in the US."
  • Kevin: While I think there are parallels between how the music and the news industry have responded to the disruptive affect of the internet on their businesses, I think there are important differences in terms of how to support their businesses going forward. One simple difference is that I listen to a song over and over if I like it. Breaking news has a very, very short shelf life. That being said, I do agree whole heartedly with one of the central tenets of this post that the news industry needs to sort its metadata out. This is a fundamental platform issue in terms of digital journalism and should be seen as an important area where the industry can and is cooperating on. The major agencies support NewsML for instance. However, too much of the news and information produced by news organisations is still unstructured and of less use than it should be for the digital age.
  • Kevin: "(Clay) Shirky say find filters – or else." Skip down to the lower third and look at the issues around curation, frustration about search and algorithms.

Do you want a community or a following?

Fabulous blog post from Richard Millington today. Richard asks a very important question of companies who are trying to do community building: Do you want a community or just a really big following? Most businesses, he says, just want (need?) a big following and aren’t really suited to having a community.

You only need a community when your audience has a desire to talk to each other and when there is a benefit (to the audience!) from talking to each other. Very, very, few organizations fit this criteria. Perhaps as low as 1 in 10.

If you don’t understand what you want or need, you won’t have the right strategy to achieve your aims. Read Richard’s whole post for more insights.

(Hat tip to Stephanie Booth.)

Comparing non-profit news org models in the US

Alan Mutter is one of those rare creatures who has both editorial and business sense and writes lucidly, analytically and rationally about the business of news. Alan says this about himself:

Alan D. Mutter is perhaps the only CEO in Silicon Valley who knows how to set type one letter at a time, just like his hero, Benjamin Franklin.

He has a great post comparing the different funding and business models of non-profit news organisastions in the US. Several have started in the last few years to address the decline in traditional reporting capacity due to the turmoil in the US newspaper industry. Some are boot-strapped, scrappy operations that operate very leanly. Others, such as ProPublica and the Texas Tribune have very substantial foundation support.

The MinnPost in Minnesota is definitely in the lean and scrappy camp. Alan thinks that the MinnPost might just have a successful model for non-profits looking to operate without major foundational funding. That kind of funding can come with strings attached. How is the MinnPost succeeding:

First, by keeping costs low. Second, by raising money almost continuously through such diversified initiatives as advertising, NPR-style user contributions and even an annual gala featuring organic-vodka martinis.

From my point of view, the MinnPost as opposed to the Texas Tribune and  ProPublica are different editorial propositions, different funding models aside. The Texas Tribune is much more like a Politico for Texas.  Both the Texas Tribune and ProPublica are intended to support the high-end Porsche of public interest journalism: Investigations. Investigations are expensive,  time-intensive projects often with very little commercial return, and ProPublica currently gets “$10m a year from a single benefactor”. Investigations are the height of public service. They garner awards and attention but often are difficult to get a return on investment alone from a strictly business point of view. ProPublica is definitely doing good work and has just won its first Pulitzer.

The MinnPost is much more of a traditional news site, covering a range of issues including politics, sports and arts, just to name a few.

Alan points out a major difference between the big foundation-funded non-profit news operations and the MinnPost: Pay.

Although Kramer and his wife, Laurie (of the MinnPost), have worked tirelessly on the project since they launched it in 2007, neither ever has drawn a dime of pay. Their commitment, which includes personal donations in excess of $120,000, contrasts to the hefty six-figure salaries paid at Pro Publica, where editor Paul Steiger makes $570,000 per year; the Bay Citizen, where CEO Lisa Frazier earns $400,000 annually, and Texas Trib, where editor Evan Smith gets $315,000 a year.

Alan points out the the another foundation supported site, Bay Citizen just leased “stylish offices in downtown San Francisco” even before it publishes a single story.

Pay for journalists

Putting aside for a moment the different models at these non-profits, I have to admit that I’m really of two minds here about the pay at these large foundation funded non-profits.

I’ve never made a lot of money being a journalist. My first full-time reporting job was at a small newspaper in western Kansas, and I made $2000 less than a first year teacher in the town I lived. Fortunately, the cost of living was pretty low. Although I have written for newspapers and done radio and TV reporting and commentary, my main income has been as a digital journalist and editor. The pay has been low compared to my colleagues focused on the traditional media. I’ve managed to make a living wage, but there have been times when it took efforts to make ends meet even though I was employed full time. The idea of making six figures is just a completely foreign concept to me, as I’m sure it is for most journalists. (There is a myth that journalists make a lot of money. That’s only for TV anchors and well paid columnists. Most of the rest of us, especially those in local journalism, are paid poorly.)

When I started out as a journalist in the mid-1990s, I complained on a mailing list that I wouldn’t be able to pay my health care bills if I was injured. (I am a American, although I’ve worked for British journalism organisations for more than a decade.) I was told by senior editors and journalists on the list that ‘you didn’t get into journalism to make money’. No, I didn’t, but I also didn’t take a vow of poverty.

There is only so much foundation funding to go around, and I have applied for foundation funding in the past (largely through the Knight News Challenge). I have to say that it makes me feel more than a bit uncomfortable about some of the pay levels at these non-profits.

Whether in the non-profit or for profit world, I feel like one of the few journalists to care about costs. My view has always been that a every pound or dollar I save on travel costs, tech or accommodation is another pound or dollar we can spend on journalism. I care deeply about journalism and public engagement, and I have always sought ways to do that as inexpensively as possible while having the greatest impact.

I take on board that to get the best investigative journalists you have to pay a premium, and I’m pleased that the editors at these well funded non-profits have the resources to pay themselves well and pay for talented journalists. However, I do wonder if the foundation funding cannot be sustained at these levels whether these heavy cost structures at these non-profits can be supported in any other way.

links for 2010-04-27

  • Kevin: The Guardian (my former employer) is trialling hyperlocal advertising system Addiply on its local beatblogs, launched in Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff earlier this year. Journalism.co.uk reports: "The system, which offers low cost adverts that can be sold on a weekly or monthly basis with different rates for different sized customers."
  • Kevin: PARC researcher Ed Chi has piped Twitter streams through Yahoo's Build Your Own Search Service (BOSS) to extract meaning from tweets much as search engines extract meaning from search queries. This gets around the issue of extracting meaning from a limited message, such as a 140 character tweet. He is using this method to create a service called Eddi to help users find relevant information based on their Twitter stream.

How many friends can you make in a week?

The New Scientist reports some research by Susan Jamison-Powell at Sheffield Hallam University which seems to show that prolific bloggers are more popular, regardless of the quality or tone of their posts.

[She] studied the popularity of 75 bloggers on the site Livejournal.com. She looked at the number of friends each blogger had, the number of posts they made, the total number of words written and the overall tone of the posts. She then asked the bloggers to rate how attractive they found each of their peer’s blogs.

She found that the more words a blogger posted, the more friends they had and the higher their attractiveness rating. The tone of their posts – whether they contained mostly positive or negative comments – had no effect.

The BPS goes into a little bit more detail, explaining that the Liverjournalers were invited into a new community and then asked to rate their fellow community members after one week. I’m not sure if this falls within the bounds of Bad Science, but it’s certainly not an accurate reflection of how communities build in the real world.

My first problem is that you just can’t extrapolate from communities on LiveJournal to blogs in general. LiveJournal has always had a different demographic to, say, bloggers using Typepad or WordPress. LiveJournal has always had a gender bias towards women, for example: currently it has 62.5% female and 37.5% male, the rest unspecified. And the bulk of users are between 18 and 34 (with an impressive spike at 30), historically much younger than demographics for other tools.

Furthermore, LiveJournal is culturally different to many other blogs and blogging platforms and has traditionally been the meeting place for people who felt that other platforms were too open for them or who felt disenfranchised by mainstream tools and wanted to be with their peers. LiveJournal, for many, was where you could be yourself and enjoy the company of people like you, no matter how weird others thought you were.

LiveJournal isn’t a typical blogging community and results from studies on LiveJournal can’t be applied to other bloggers.

But furthermore, after only a week of getting to know someone, you have very little information to go on. Those who talk most will almost certainly get higher rankings than those who are quiet simply because they stand out and can easily be remembered. If you are trying to get to know 75 people in just seven days – and you have to ask if that is even possible – you’re going to rank the noisier ones higher just because they are the people you’ve had most exposure to. If you’ve had very little conversation with someone you are bound to rank them near the bottom simply because they are still strangers and humans tend to be stranger-averse.

How would this study have turned out if they had got to know each other over the course of a month? Or six months? Or a year? You know, real human friendship timescales. And how does the nature of the community change how people react to each other? The study doesn’t say what the raison d’être of the community was, and whether these people were gathered around an issue they cared deeply about or were just mooching around online, killing time.

The lesson that this study appears to be teaching is that bloggers should write more, and not worry about quality. Frankly, I call bullshit on the whole thing. The way that we form relationships through blogging is a complex and nuanced process, just like the way that we form friendships offline. We get to know people over time. We decide whether we agree with their points of view, whether we like the way they present themselves, how they interact with others and we build a picture of them that is either attractive or not.

That this study should get headlines in The Telegraph and BusinessWeek shows how poorly social media is still being covered by the mainstream press and how little understanding or critical thinking they do.

We do need a lot more research into the use of social media and particularly its use in the UK. Studies like Jamison-Powell’s, however, do not advance the debate in any useful way.

US paper sets limit for free local articles

In a hint at the thinking behind the New York Times’ paid content strategy, a local paper it owns will allow subscribers to read all news content, but non-subscribers will be asked to pay after viewing a “predetermined number of staff-generated local news articles“. The Times owned Worcester Telegram & Gazette writes:

After users pass that limit, they will be asked to pay a monthly charge or buy a day pass. The price and threshold have not been determined.

The article states that most content on the site will remain free with the pay meter being set only for content produced by the Telegram & Gazette news staff.

This is yet another refinement in the paid content strategies being proposed, and it moves further away from the kind of binary, universal paywall versus free argument. The binary argument makes good copy, a nice bit of media biz argy bargy, but it hasn’t done much to help the failing fortunes of the newspaper business. Besides, most sensible people in the business know that a more sophisticated, hybrid model has a greater chance of success.

I’m not familiar with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The big questions for me are around how much original content they produce on a given day and the competition they face from local radio and television. The bulk of their website will remain free even for non-subscribers. Will the staff content be enough of a draw to get people to pay? We shall see, but it will be great to get some data from an increasing number of experiments so that the paid content discussion moves past some of the faith-based decision making stage.

Enterprise 2.0 Beta

Via Anthony Mayfield, I discovered this video from KS12:

Anthony pulls two ideas out of the video: How our need to assign and take the credit for ideas can mess things up; and how sometimes information should just fade from view as it gets older, rather than being always perfectly preserved.

I pulled out another: That releasing software in beta is an important statement about the underlying attitudes towards innovation and development, and sets the scene psychologically for change and progression. In the Web 2.0 community, the ‘release early, release often’ ethos is well known and frequently used. Start-ups release the most basic version of their software, gather user feedback, watch for emergent behaviour and then develop the next release accordingly. Users are primed by the word ‘beta’ to expect problems – so they are less upset when they occur – and also to expect change. The process doesn’t always go smoothly, but it is a cost-effective way of developing software and web services quickly.

Enterprise really needs to embrace the idea of beta, not just in software development but in their project planning too. The idea that everything has to be perfect at launch, that launch is an end instead of a beginning, and that addressing bugs and flaws after launch is somehow a sign of weakness is an anachronism. I can’t count the number of projects where all the effort has gone into a final deadline and the results of all our hard work withered on the vine because no one thought about what to do with the work we had produced.

This is especially true of social software and social media projects where the tools are evolving faster than even the professionals can keep up. Social media projects of whatever stripe should be be seen as an ongoing process of change as the tools, ideas and culture all slowly mature. It’s much more like cheese that ripens slowly than a souffle that flops if not consumed immediately.