Welcome to the new Strange Attractor

Yesterday afternoon, Strange Attractor migrated from using a very old installation of Movable Type to using a shiny new version of WordPress. We’re very happy and excited that this has happened as it’s going to give us a lot more flexibility in the long run to install plug-ins and do cool things.

You might notice that things have subtly changed, e.g. there’s no preview button on the comments now, but hopefully you’ll find the site quicker to load, easier to comment on, and generally better in other ways that we haven’t quite figured out yet. The site may change more over coming weeks as we tinker with it. (The very fact that we can tinker with it makes Kevin and I very happy!)

Thanks to Hylton Joliffe and the team at Corante for making the transition so smooth!

Unconscionable political convention coverage

In May, as part of the Carnival of Journalism, Ryan Sholin asked:

What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?

I have another take on that question, and it is one that more news organisations are being forced to ask. What can news organisations no longer afford to do? What is your news organisation doing that is either too costly or provides so little value to your readers/viewers/listeners that it’s no longer justifiable? Or put another way, if it’s not unique and it’s not really uniquely relevant to your audience, is there something else that you should be covering that is? What is the opportunity cost of covering that event that everyone and their dog, cat, sister, brother and third cousin covering? What are you foregoing to cover that event?

Why do I ask this question? I give you 15,000 reasons, which is the number of journalists covering the US political conventions. That is 3.75 journalists per delegate. It might be defensible if those 15,000 journalists was actually doing something unique in terms of coverage. But they aren’t. Furthermore, that is 15,000 journalists covering an event that the New York Times aptly described as “effectively a four-night miniseries before an audience of 20 million people or more”.

During a planning meeting, I was asked what kind of news we could expect. I responded: None. The entire goal of the conventions is not to make news, not to have surprises. They are carefully choreographed, scripted and stage-managed. Yes, the candidates will make an acceptance speech that is newsworthy, but the rest of the evenings are designed to net as much free air-time and coverage as possible to launch the candidates’ campaigns.

Political conventions are like class reunions for American press corps. I’ve covered two, and they are great fun and great theatre, but they aren’t great news events. Ted Koppel left the 1996 Republican Convention early, complaining that it was little more than a picture show. This year, he’s there as an analyst for BBC America. His assessment of the coverage is pretty damning:

Amy Gahran, writing for Poynter, called the numbers of journalists covering the convention an unconscionable waste of news resources in light of the current state of the news business. Mark Potts said:

At a time when news budgets are being slashed because of declining revenue, how can a news organization possibly justify sending a raft of people to the conventions? (I suspect the numbers for the Olympics are about the same-and just as ridiculous.) …

What stories are they going to get that the AP can’t supply? Hijinks of the local delegates? Inside info about what the candidates hope to do for the economy back home? Local color on Denver and St. Paul? It’s really hard to understand the need for this kind of bulk coverage.

And I couldn’t agree more with Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center who says that news organisations must focus on what is unique to their franchise. As I often say, the danger of Google News for news organisations isn’t that it steals your traffic but that it shows how little is unique in most coverage, how much re-packaged wire copy we re-produce. That’s the real danger, and it’s why the average news website visitor views about 2 pages per month. And Michele echoes my concerns about opportunity costs:

I also am frustrated when I thinking about all the stories that thousands of reporters might be covering closer to home as the conventions unfold. With the troubled economy, mortgage foreclosures, health care, the federal budget deficit and rising energy costs, I don’t think it’s possible for journalists to be developing enough stories about the impact of these issues on their communities and the people who live in them. Not to mention creating and linking to resources for people in trouble and holding officials accountable for their share of the problem (or explaining why they have no share).

At the end of the day, the Columbia Journalism Review lays out the naked truth, of the 15,000 journalists:

7,500 aren’t doing much at all. This isn’t surprising. Only a small number of reporters actually have a reason to be here. The rest are conventioneering—seeing old friends, eating Democratic-themed menu items (“Barack Obama’s Turkey Chili”) in pandering local restaurants, brandishing their press passes at all comers, looking for free things, and spending about 14 percent of their time trying to rustle up enough stories to justify their presence to their editors. These reporters are the ones mostly writing about themselves, or their friends, or their experiences exploring Denver with their friends (“I was enjoying some turkey chili with David Broder yesterday…”). At least they’re open about the fact that they’re enjoying themselves.

And I blame journalists as much as their editors. Yes, trips have always been used by editors to reward good journalists, but there are journalists who have come to treat the profession like their own personal travel bureau. They come up with the flimsiest pretence for extravagant travel that is of little journalistic value and of little benefit to their audience, who in the end are footing the bill.

No journalism organisation has ever had unlimited resources, and now, newspapers are fighting for their very existence. It is not a time for profligate spending, as if it ever were. If we are true to our word that journalism is essential to a healthy democracy, then we have to use our limited resources judiciously and for the benefit of our audience. If we provide them relevant information, then, hopefully, they will support our efforts. If we continue these wasteful ways, then our lofty arguments about our essential democratic role will be seen as disingenuous and self-serving.

Disclosure: Yes, I am taking a trip in October to cover the US Elections. But I am keeping a close eye on the bottom line. The quality of coverage is not directly proportional to the cost. I use digital technology to undercut the traditional cost basis of journalism. It’s what we all need to do. We must use disruptive digital technology to reduce the cost basis of what we do. It will give us more resources to do journalism and to innovate.

I have one prediction that I am reasonably confident in making. In 2012, there will not be 15,000 journalists. Not because news organisations finally come to their senses but because so many have ceased to exist.

The Guardian: Breaking the email compulsion

I have an article in The Guardian today (in the paper and online) about email, how it’s getting out of control and what we can do about it. It contains some of my thinking on email, operant conditioning, and how social tools can help us reduce the amount of email we send (and therefore, hopefully, receive). Here’s a taster:

Back in the early 1990s, email was a privilege granted only to those who could prove they needed it. Now, it has turned into a nuisance that’s costing companies millions. We may feel that we have it under control, but not only do we check email more often than we realise, but the interruptions caused are more detrimental than was previously thought. In a study last year, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.

It had been assumed that email doesn’t cause interruptions because the recipient chooses when to check for and respond to email. But Jackson found that people tend to respond to email as it arrives, taking an average of only one minute and 44 seconds to act upon a new email notification; 70% of alerts got a reaction within six seconds. That’s faster than letting the phone ring three times.

Time out
Added to this is the time people spend with their inbox. A July 2006 study by ClearContext, an email management tools vendor, surveyed 250 users and discovered that 56% spent more than two hours a day in their inbox. Most felt they got too much email – by January 2008, 38% of respondents received more than 100 emails a day – and that it stopped them from doing other things.

Dr Karen Renaud, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and her colleagues at the University of the West of Scotland discovered that email users fall into three categories: relaxed, driven and stressed. “The relaxed group don’t let email exert any pressure on their lives,” Renaud says. “They treat it exactly the way that one would treat the mail: ‘I’ll fetch it, I’ll deal with it in my own time, but I’m not going to let it upset me’.” The second group felt “driven” to keep on top of email, but also felt that they could cope with it. The third group, however, reacted negatively to the pressure of email. “That causes stress,” says Renaud, “and stress causes all sorts of health problems.”

Read the rest on The Guardian website or in the paper.

Thanks to everyone who helped me out with this article, especially Tom Stafford who was my original inspiration!

Major and minor reasons for US newspaper crisis

Tip of the hat to Martin Stabe for highlighting this link as he does with so many must-read media stories. Vin Crosbie has a lengthy and thoughtful post, nay essay, on why the US newspaper industry is in dire straits in two parts, see Part 1 and Part 2. Vin’s prediction is this:

More than half of the 1,439 daily newspapers in the United States won’t exist in print, e-paper, or Web site formats by the end of next decade. They will go out of business. The few national dailies — namely USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal — will have diminished but continuing existences via the Web and e-paper, but not in print.

Predictions like this might seem common, but what is unique is the rational argument that Vin presents. He goes through an extensive examination of media history and media economics. The conclusion is that newspapers have violated the principle of supply and demand and failed to adapt its core product.

It is almost impossible to overstate how utterly the supply of news and information available to most Americans has changed during the past 35 years. Within a single generation, the Supply & Demand equation has gone from relative scarcity to certain surplus. People now have so much access to information that some are complaining about ‘data smog‘.

I’ve said this before. So many journalists that I meet still believe that there is something exceptional about what they are doing and producing. They still operate on the assumption that information is scarce, which is why the industry has largely failed to adapt to the information and media-saturated society that we live in.

And for journalists angry with the internet. That anger is misplaced. Half of the newspapers’ decline relative to readership and population happened before 1991, a few years before public access to the internet and awareness of interactivity and multimedia. In the US, readership began to decline in the 1970s. As Steve Yelvington has said, “Even if the Internet had never happened, newspapers — especially big-city papers — have long been headed for a dangerous inflection point at which their market penetration would not be sufficient to sustain a mass-media business model.”

I don’t think that the news business in general and newspapers in particular will make the changes necessary to survive until they come to grips with the new reality of information consumption. The printing presses of newspapers are no longer a licence to print money.

This is not necessarily about the emergence of the internet or the development of multimedia as both Vin and Steve have said. I think that Steve summed it best, when he said, “It’s a problem of content relevancy in an increasingly rich media mix, and not specific to the emergence of the World Wide Web.”

If it’s not about adopting new technologies, then the questions become more fundamental and problematic. They are not questions about platforms and integration but rather about core assumptions about journalism. Newspaper editors select stories based on two criteria, Vin says:

1. Stories about which the editor thinks everyone should be informed.

2. Stories that might have the greatest common interest.

Vin challenges some core journalistic beliefs. Pardon the lengthy quote, but I think it’s an important point:

Newspaper editors’ use of those two criteria to select stories for publication has become so ingrained after 400 years of analog technology that few editors or newspaper executives are able to fathom any other possible or apt practices for story selection.

Moreover, they came to believe that producing a common edition for everyone is their raison d’être, forgetting it arose as a limitation of their technology. Fitting psychologist Abraham Maslow’s statement that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail,” the editorial production limitation of Gutenberg’s technology has led most newspaper editors to believe that they set the ‘common agenda’ for their community and likewise that their community’s readership is somehow homogenous because it reads the same newspaper edition on any given day.

Vin says that newspapers general-interest product has become obsolete. People aren’t going online to consume news and information but to seek out information and entertainment that the generic package of information produced by the news industry doesn’t provide. I’ll leave you to read Vin’s essays and his conclusions.

‘Muted response’, but required reading

I agree with Mark Hamilton. I’m surprised that response to Vin’s post has been so muted. Vin’s two posts are more than just a recounting of the bleak state of the US newspaper industry. We all know the statistics both in terms of media consumption and economic trends. Vin’s posts go further and provide a very clear and cogent analysis of the why.

Why the lack of response? Mark quotes Scott Karp or Publishing 2.0 who said on Twitter:

…(there’s) a lot of searching for a new model that validates all of the old assumptions about the practice of journalism.

Mark expands on Scott’s comment in his own post:

It seems to me, that encapsulate a lot of what Vin is writing about, as well as a lot of the current angst (and blindess) that prevails in the newspaper industry. The idea that things will be all right once the economy picks up, or once someone (else) figures out this online thing is still fairly rampant in a lot of the mediascape. So is the idea that newspapers only need to find a way to keep doing what they’ve always done and everything will be okay.

Vin sees not a Dark Age for American journalism but a “Gray Age”. Amy Gahran, writing at Poynter doesn’t agree.

It seems to me that the nature of news and journalism are transforming. It’s not just about the “news business,” and definitely not just about “newspapers.” It’s possible that the era of traditional journalism may be on the wane — but does that mean that people will do without news or information? As I wrote last week: I don’t think so.

On another post at Poytner, Michelle Ferrier echoes Vin’s call for customisation and greater relevance:

At its core, what Crosbie states is that news values are changing — what used to not be a story now is a story, to someone. It’s this long tail of highly diverse, niche content (often produced by community members) that newspapers should be concerned about, rather than getting the right story mix on a dying page 1A.

It is like the famous comment that if all the deer have guns, you better get into the ammunition business. Most newspapers should radically shift to focus on their unique selling point: Local information, and build a platform (or multi-platform strategy) on which staff and the community can co-create news that suits their needs.

News site from scratch: What are the most important things to include?

I didn’t ask this question, although I think about it quite frequently. Mohamed Nanabhay, the Head of New Media with Al Jazeera, posed the question on Twitter:

Twitterverse : If you were building a news website from ground up what would be the most important things to include?

It’s a good question, a pressing question. I think that there will be a site with related services that radically disrupts the news industry. Last month, I wrote a post that asked the question of what had prevented newspapers from being successful in the digital age. Steve Yelvington, who has great depth of experience in journalism, digital or otherwise, left a left a great comment and concluded:

This ain’t just another channel. The new players, coming into the game without any frame of reference other than what’s right in front of them, are much more able to recognize that than those of us from legacy media.

What would you do with a blank tablet? What would you do without the legacy business? What do you think would be most important in launching not just a news website but a digital news service with no baggage?

Mohamed started thinking about three guiding principles for visitors: Relevance, discoveribility and depth, and Robin Hamman, of Headshift, suggested wrapping all of this in a social media layer. Lars Plougmann, also with Headshift, suggested “syndication, participation, embeddable content, bridges to the flow on the web, mobile access”.

Mandy De Waal, editor of MoneyWebLife, had several interesting ideas.

  1. Story tracking tool – which stories most popular, searched for etc ala Google, live chat with newsroom at certain times.
  2. Satire… satire… satire! A section showing people how to easily become vloggers, Thought Leader type guest columns, polls.
  3. Live feed of the newsroom in action – (but not close enough to see what they are writing about 😉
  4. Ticker tape of hyper links showing breaking story – this could be a new form or type of content aggregations.

I re-tweeted Mohamed’s question and got some great responses. John Thompson, of journalism.co.uk says: “Automatic semantic tagging, related links, user-customisable RSS, SEO friendly URLs, Apture-style auto linking, good comments system”.

Paul Bradshaw, Senior Lecturer in Online Journalism and Magazines at Birmingham City University and the man behind the Online Journalism Blog, also had a number of good ideas:

  1. RSS at every juncture – automating all activity so it’s publishable: bookmarking, twittering, blogging, email, browsing.
  2. pingback in all external linking. I’d also move away from one big powerhouse towards a network of little niches.
  3. and I’d set it up so journalists got alerts or digests when people comment on their stories, with time set aside for response

On the last point, I think that commenting systems should have RSS. With Movable Type, I occasionally use CoComment to follow the conversations that I participate in.


And I think Craig McGinty has an excellent bit of advice: “Be as creative in making it pay as editorially.”

We all realise that the business model for newspapers is broken – especially in the United States – and it’s time to consider revenue models and multiple revenue streams. This would be especially critical for an all digital news service. The cost basis of a digital news service could be much lower than a newspaper or broadcast outlet, but the reality is that the revenue is also lower for digital right now.

Businesses need to look at new revenue streams. PaidContent (recently acquired by the folks who pay my wage) has built a successful business not simply by focusing on the digital content vertical but also by building a successful events business. I don’t think the business conferences are the only events-based businesses that content companies could sponsor. And events aren’t the only new revenue stream that a digital business should develop.

Cost basis

Legacy media companies haven’t taken advantage of the disruptive economics of digital technologies. I see a lot of newspaper companies getting into video, but instead of using low-cost digital technologies, they are chasing television and buying high-cost broadcast technology.

Smart companies are leveraging open-source technologies, but many companies suffer from ‘not made here’ syndrome, delivering projects over-budget and behind schedule.

The digital project would also start with a much leaner staff. Jeff Jarvis had this suggestion on the Guardian’s media blog:

But on my blog, I took a hypothetical newsroom staff of 100 as a round number, then cut by 30% – not draconian by today’s precedents – and asked what the priorities should be when the cutbacks come. In my hypothetical newsroom, reporting is the highest priority. The more original journalism that is done, the higher the value of the paper and its web service, the better the opportunity to stand out in links and search. Breaking news is worthwhile, but I come down heavily on the side of beat reporting: journalists who are devoted to watchdogging an area.

The Social Layer

I agree with Robin. The successful site would have a social media layer. The site has to have attention data (most viewed, commented, linked, Dugg, etc), recommendation, rating and several levels of participation.

However, I think the social-ness of the strategy can’t stop with the technology. I think the news site of the future will also have a staff focused on building community around the content. People make technology social. Journalists connected to their communities provide more relevant content to those communities and build deeper relationships with them. Social journalists, comfortable creating social media and facilitating social interaction around that content, will be the core of disruptive digital business coming to a community near you.

Howto: Geo-tagging photos for an easy map mashup

Next month, I’ll be heading to the US to travel across the country and to talk to ordinary people about the issues that are important to them in the presidential election. I did similar trips for the BBC in 2000 (that’s me behind the floppy hair) and 2004, and I often credit the BBC’s Steve Herrmann for encouraging me to blog. This time I’ll be travelling with James Ridgeway and the Guardian Films team. Jim and I will be vlogging, blogging, Twittering and Flickring our way across the States. I’m keen to geo-tag as much as possible to give people another way to follow the story.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, both in terms of miles and in terms of the journalism so I’m looking for all sorts of time-saving ways that we can give the kind of rolling road trip coverage that is expected in the age of internet journalism. I want readers to feel as if they are there with us in the car. I plan to use Twibble mobile and Twittervision to geo-tag our Twitter updates. That’s tomorrow’s work.

Today, I’ve managed to figure out a way to easily tag and post all of my photos. I’ll be using a Nokia N82, which has an amazing 5-megapixel camera, brilliant (in every sense of the word) xenon flash and built-in GPS. Right before Suw and I left on our walk last week, I discovered the Nokia Location Tagger application. It automatically adds geo-data to the EXIF file of your photos. Nokia recently stopped work on the application, but there are rumours that it will be added to an upcoming firmware update for the N-series. UPDATE: Ricky Cadden, from Symbian Guru, says that the firmware has been updated. I’m still hunting for the setting to enable it, but it’s there.

UPDATE 2: Ricky comes up with the goods and how to enable geo-tagging with the updated firmware:

The setting is admittedly a bit hidden, you should open the camera and then press the left softkey to open the options submenu, and go into the settings. There you will be able to activate the geotagging feature. You can confirm this as a small satellite icon will appear in the bottom left corner of the camera viewfinder, so that you can easily see whether or not you have a good GPS fix.

It took from a few seconds to almost a minute for the Location Tagger application to acquire a location. I used assisted GPS, which triangulates using geo-data from mobile phone masts (cell towers) to help increase the speed and precision of the GPS. UPDATE: Ricky also said that the A-GPS works slightly differently in the N82 and other new S60 devices, using the data connection to off-load positioning tasks to a server to speed the GPS lock. The positioning information embedded in the photo files turned out to be scarily accurate, showing the outlines of churches where we took photos.

My next challenge was how to easily get the embedded geo-data into Flickr and out of the EXIF file. When I first uploaded photos, I found I had to cut-and-paste the geo-data from the additional EXIF data in the photos. That was too cumbersome. However, Flickr has a not quite, but just about, hidden setting to ‘Automagically import GPS information as geo data‘. Tick the box ‘yes please, that would be lovely’, and you’re laughing. I can even upload directly to Flickr from the N82, although my Pay-as-you-Go data tariff quickly becomes pay-through-the-nose so I rarely do that unless I’m near a WiFi hotspot. I usually wait and upload from the phone via USB cable to my computer.

With that problem solved, the photos were plotted on a map. You can now see an extra ‘Map’ option below each geo-tagged photo.

Flickr with geo-tagged informatioin

Also, at the bottom of your Flickr photo page, you’ll see feeds that have geo-data embedded in them, a geoFeed and a KML feed, the latter which can be used on Google Maps and Google Earth. (A Google Maps representative told me that a browser-based version of Google Earth is on its way, although it will initially only work in Internet Explorer.) UPDATE: Keir Clarke, from Google Maps Mania, says: “A browser-based version of Google Earth is already available. It isn’t restricted to Internet Explorer but is restricted to Microsoft operating systems.”

GeoFeed and KML feeds from Flickr

Now, this will show you the last 20 items in your full feed, and I will be travelling for more than a month and hope to shoot hundreds of pictures. How am I going to create some kind of archival map? Adam Franco has developed a wonderful script to generate a KML file from an entire Flickr photo set. Thanks Adam, it’s a brilliant piece of work with some basic options. You’ll end up with a KML file based on the name of your set. You can then upload the KML file to your server and either use Map Channels or Google My Maps to generate the map.

If you only want the most recent photos, you can just use the KML or geoFeed from Flickr and use that URL. If you only care about the last 20 photos in a set, you can get a geoRSS feed simply by adding &georss=1 to the end of the feed URL. Google My Maps even has an import feature if you can’t host the KML file yourself. (Or for some reason the powers that be won’t give you access to a server. Not as if that ever happens.)

You can choose whether you want a satellite or map view. If you can’t use an iFrame in your CMS, throw it into a widget on Widgetbox. You can usually find a code format that your CMS will like (or allow). And voila. You now have lovely map ready for embedding using an iFrame. These are pictures from our recent walk along the Offa’s Dyke Trail.

View Larger Map

CIO Magazine: Social networking stands to benefit businesses

I got back from holiday to discover that my article for CIO Magazine, Social networking stands to benefit businesses, is now up online. Here’s the opener from it:

Mention social networking and most people immediately think of sites like Facebook, MySpace or Bebo which let people create lists of friends, send messages to each other, share photos or music, join groups with like-minded-individuals and just generally keep in touch.

Images of industriousness rarely spring to mind, yet many organisations have realised that it’s not all just super-poking and games of Scrabulous, and want to use their own social networks for the benefit of their businesses.

The potential for social networking tools to connect huge numbers of people has been clearly illustrated. Companies want to harness that power themselves, and not just for marketing or recruitment, but also for internal communications and collaboration.

One HR executive recently, rather mournfully, said to me, “Fifty per cent of our staff are on Facebook. Why can’t we get that kind of buy-in?” Although Facebook is primarily a tool for organising your personal life, people also use it for business and, increasingly, companies realise that they have to provide such tools internally or else employees will communicate over the web, potentially risking sensitive company data.

Another significant driver pushing companies to adopt social networking tools is the need to locate expertise within companies whose employees are dispersed across many locations and time zones, a problem exacerbated by restructured offices that emphasise teleworking and hot-desking. It was this, along with the emergence of Web 2.0, that formed the backdrop to IBM’s exploration of social networking.

Read the rest on the CIO Magazine site.

Gone walking

Suw at the trail head Suw at the trail head in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

I can’t believe that Suw is letting me drag her out walking again, but she has. Last year, she let me drag her up a mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. This year, we’re off for the next week to hike Offa’s Dyke Naitonal Trail in the Welsh marches, the area along the Welsh-English border. It’s much more mellow and some lovely B&B’s along the way, but it’s still a 70-mile walk.
Suw is taking her iPhone, and I’m taking my Nokia N82, mostly because it’s the lightest 5-megapixel camera we have. Apart from that, it’s a technology-free, blogging-free week. We’ll see in week, hopefully rested and relaxed.

Multi-platform thinking: Focus on users

It’s been three years since I first heard Ulrik Haagerup speak. He helped transform a regional newspaper to a multi-platform business, or media house as he called it. If US newspapers want a model for a multi-platform business, they have a good model in Denmark. He helped transform Nordjyske from a sleepy regional newspaper to a local 24-hour television channel, a radio station, a website and a premium SMS business. How do they juggle the demands of these multiple platforms? They focus on the exclusive strength of each platform and what service it provides to users. From his address to the AOP in London in 2006.

They now have a multimedia newsroom. They don’t have newspaper reporters or radio reporters. They have reporters. They create story for all media, but not all stories are created for all media. He broke it down this way as media and their strengths:

  • TV- feelings
  • Radio- here and now
  • Web- searchable and depth
  • Mobile- everywhere
  • Traffic paper- find time
  • Weekly- to everyone
  • Daily- stops time

I heard Ulrik Haagerup speak at an IFRA event the year before, and he broke down how they would cover a breaking news story. The focus was on the platform closest to the user. If a large lorry (truck) crash, closed a major roadway, they would send a breaking news alert to their premium SMS subscribers while they provided a breaking news alert on the web, TV and radio networks as they scrambled a team to the scene. They provided live video and post a story on the website as soon as possible. The focus was on the user, not the platform.

Why do I recap this story? The Philadelphia Inquirer started quite a furore yesterday after a memo saying that they were going ‘print first’ for their investigations and enterprise stories. Managing Editor Mike Leary:

Beginning today, we are adopting an Inquirer first policy for our signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews of all sorts. What that means is that we won’t post those stories online until they’re in print.

‘Print first’? Is this a retro-grade step? Steve Outing called on the industry: Don’t go backward, newspapers!

What’s long held back the newspaper industry and gotten it in the current mess has been holding back online innovation that might impact the legacy product (print). The kind of serious innovation that might have avoided the turmoil we’re now seeing among newspapers (especially larger metros like the Inquirer) could only take place with an attitude of “Let’s completely forget about the print edition and just try to build the best damn online service possible.”

Steve quoted Jeff Jarvis who said on Twitter:

Insanely, suicidally stupid. If we keep out the gas stations, we’ll force them to ride horses, damnit.

Jeff expanded on his Tweet with a post: A stake through the heart of the has-been Inquirer. Steve Yelvington doesn’t think that holding exclusive stories is the problem, but he takes issue with the ‘us versus them’ tone of the memo. This isn’t multi-platform thinking. As Steve says:

Our job is to serve the public, not advance one medium and oppose another.

A publication plan for “signature investigative reporting” should be one that’s designed to bring the largest possible group of people into the strongest possible engagement with that piece.

But even more than that, the memo drew the print newsroom into opposition to the website. Steve added: “In his memo, Leary wrote: ‘We’ll cooperate with philly.com, as we do now ….’ Well, gee. That’s so nice of you. Us and them, the great divide.” That is a retro-grade step. There are no print reporters, radio reporters or online reporters in a multi-platform world. As Ulrik says, we’re reporters. Period.

Howard Owens doesn’t think that it’s necessarily a bad idea. Online news still hasn’t developed a business model that will sustain current newsroom operations.

Even while penetration/circulation declines have been beguiling to the industry, they didn’t begin with the internet. There is something larger, sociological, or potentially a problem with journalism itself (as I’ve said before), that’s going on.

It might be foolish indeed to expect online to save American journalism, given those trends. So why insist now that a metro newspaper must, must put its entire edition online?

I agree with Howard that we shouldn’t shovel content from one platform to another, and it’s right to understand the economics of the platforms. I think a successful multi-platform strategy will focus not only the economics of the platforms but user needs. Meet the needs of users by leveraging the unique strengths of multiple platforms and one can start to see the basis of a successful information business. The Inquirer move, especially when read in full, retreats in areas of key strengths for online and looks like a defensive strategy. The memo continues:

But we’ll make the decision to press the button on the online packages only when readers are able to pick up The Inquirer on their doorstep or on the newsstand. … For our bloggers, especially, this may require a bit of an adjustment. Some of you like to try out ideas that end up as subjects of stories or columns in print first. If in doubt, consult your editor. Or me or Chris Krewson.

In that light, the button has printed on it ‘Self-destruct’.

links for 2008-08-08 [delicious.com]