links for 2009-01-21

  • Kevin: Matt Waite writes: "PolitiFact may not look like tradional journalism, but it very much is. It's a story type that's been around for decades, a type of accountability journalism that's been around much longer than that. The difference is that we aren't just creating a field for a headline and a field for a story and calling it quits. The difference is that we view content as data and the database as an act of journalism in itself. Each promise in the database is a piece of journalism and a piece of data. And all the acts of journalism that combine to make up the database form one meta act of journalism."

links for 2009-01-20

links for 2009-01-17

  • Kevin: Robin Hamman looks at how Twitter has changed how he filters information. "I realised yesterday that I haven't looked at my RSS reader since Christmas or earlier, and that my number of delicious links has gone from maybe 10 a day to just a trickle. That's because I'm using twitter as a sort of human filtered RSS reader: most of the people I used to subscribe to I now follow and the people I follow tend to tweet about the best things they post or read. " The network is the filter.
  • Kevin: Lisa Williams proposes and interesting concept based on the analogy of Amazon's EC2, a cloud computing service. It's another way to look at the changing business model of journalism. Business model discussions tend to focus on revenue streams, but I think it's also important to reconsider working methods and work flows. Are there more efficient ways to do what we've traditionally done in journalism? I think so.

links for 2009-01-16

  • Kevin: This is a very academic but interesting post looking at changing models of information dissemination and influence. The author comes at this not from a professional journalistic point of view but from a military background. It's worth a read. The author concludes: "I really like Jay Rosen's post, but I see it as a dieing 2D linear model of information control giving way to an emerging 3D, networked, hierarchical, content distribution model with journalists higher in the hierarchy than bloggers, but part of the same network. There is strength in networks, which is why I believe the internet will ultimately strengthen, not weaken as Jay suggests, the authority of professional journalism because building networks will become part of the job. That isn't a bad thing for journalism, larger networks translates to larger audiences."
  • Kevin: Jay Rosen writes: 'In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– connected "up" to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding. I will try to explain why.'
  • Kevin: The manager of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer chronicles a busy time and possibly the last 60 days of his newspaper in print. Reading this is like following candidates who knews their losing but still muster the energy and self-confidence to campaign another day.
  • Kevin: Fons Tuinstra, a former foreign correspondent, views the GlobalPost model with scepticism. The compensation is too low ($1000), and an interest in the site won't pay the bills. He also says the business model looks 'scary'. They will put content behind a paywall, and he says that "only drives away potential traffic".

Enterprise RSS must not die

Marshall Kirkpatrick over at ReadWriteWeb has said that enterprise RSS is dead. Brad Feld, an investor in Newsgator, disagrees and thinks that RSS is alive and well. There’s a spirited discussion in both posts’ comments that’s worth a scan.

I was talking about enterprise RSS only yesterday, and my experience with it has been that it’s nigh on impossible to get RSS readers rolled out in my clients’ companies (except the really small ones, and they tend to go for Google Reader or something else that’s free, not enterprise). Only two clients over the last four years have actually piloted an RSS reader internally.

One client tried Newsgator, but didn’t like it. I wasn’t privy to that conversation, so all I know is that the feature set wasn’t adequate for the money. That was a couple of years ago, so that doesn’t tell us much about the situation now. The other client also tried Newsgator and the jury was still out at the time my engagement finished, but given that their budget was subsequently slashed to £0, I’m guessing that they too didn’t end up with an enterprise-wide installation.

Of the others, we often didn’t get as far as discussions about cost or features, because the response from IT was a flat “No”. There just was no political will within the company to even investigate the possibility, let along start assessing possible tools. I’ve also had reports of companies saying “Yes, we’ll think about it, but a code review might take upwards of a year”, which is so close to “No” that you couldn’t get a piece of paper between them.

So what’s going on? Certainly it’s not that RSS is a difficult concept to explain. I explain it all the time, and whilst it helps to be able to draw diagrams for people, when you say “Instead of you going round to all those websites you check on a daily basis, the content just comes to you” most people understand. And I don’t believe the people who complain about RSS being a three letter acronym either – I just don’t think people are that stupid.

The Web 2.0 evangelists within enterprise that I’ve known have all been really smart people who totally understand the usefulness of RSS, but often they don’t have the political capital to get things done properly. Often they are working with no budget, and have a hard enough time protecting basic tools such as blogs and wikis from senior managers who’d prefer everything to be in SharePoint instead. They don’t necessarily have the heft to get a new tool rolled out company-wide.

Often, RSS readers are seen as a tool that might benefit a minority of people (the evangelists themselves) and the wider uses across the business are either not discussed or not recognised. This gives IT, or other sections of management, the excuse they need to shut down any sort of RSS reader project. Of course, RSS is not just for edge cases, but a useful tool for anyone who has to deal with lots of incoming information, from marketing to competitive intelligence to research to development… the list goes on and on. Yet if it can be characterised as just for a minority, it can be side-lined and binned.

The Catch-22 attitude – if a technology isn’t used by the majority then it’s not going to be rolled out company-wide, meaning that only a minority can ever use it – is endemic in IT these days. I know that’s a comment likely to bring the IT defenders out of the woodwork, but so often I see IT departments whose only mission is to keep the network secure. Obviously that’s important, but IT is also suppose to be about enabling business, and when IT starts to get in the way of important advances in business technology, hard questions should be asked.

But we can’t lay the blame entirely at IT’s door – it’s more complex than that. It’s partly to do with the immaturity of social tools in business, and the propensity for evangelists to fight on alone instead of seeking external expert advice to bring in an ally. It’s also partly to do with the anti-technology culture that I see rife in some British businesses. It’s partly to do with management’s reluctance to see social tools as a suite, preferring to look for a “quick fix”, which of course doesn’t exist, or engaging in tech tokenism: “Oh, we have a blog, we get 2.0.”

Yet I am also rather worried by the fact that Newsgator seems to be the only kid on the block these days. There are a number of different blogging platforms, with WordPress and Movable Type being the main contenders. Several wiki platforms, including Socialtext, ThoughtFarmer, Confluence. So why aren’t there more RSS aggregators pitching for the enterprise market? Where’s the competition? Newsgator might be doing fine, but it should be only one of a number of companies providing enterprise RSS solutions, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t the case.

Of course, there are no easy answers, because this really isn’t about the tech as much as it’s about people. It’s about demonstrating the benefits, communicating use cases, reaching and persuading decision makers, and supporting evangelists. None of that can be done easily, quickly, or simply. Can we really expect Newsgator to turn around the attitudes of the tens of thousands of people needed to create a genuine sea change? Enterprise RSS readers can help companies organise and filter information, which is a critical business function in a range of industries. But with Newsgator the last company standing, will they be able to prove RSS’ worth before it’s too late.

links for 2009-01-14

How to run a news organisation in a down economy

The year has started out with more hand wringing about the predictable (and predicted), but very dire, economic situation of newspapers, particularly in the US. News organisations’ belief that quality will be their saviour is usually the result of projections of their own information consumption patterns and standards for quality on their audience, motivations that their audience may or may not share.

Newspapers are not maintaining the audiences necessary to support their current costs. Steve Yelvington just wrote this post about the bad news for newspapers and rays of hope, which is a comment that he left on Jeff Jarvis’ list of newspaper bad news from 2008:

At the core, it’s not an advertising problem. Local businesses still need to reach potential local customers, and they’re willing (although certainly not eager) to pay for results.

It’s primarily a failure to attract and retain a commercially relevant audience that’s breaking the newspaper business model.

I agree with Steve that multi-platform, multi-revenue stream businesses are necessary to survive, and many publications are in the process of the wrenching change required to achieve that.

But there is another, equally important, way to make the necessary change for news organisations looking to survive in this very challenging economic environment, and that is to disrupt their own costs (and I don’t mean cutting head count even further). While some blame digital technology and the internet for the death of newspapers, I would argue that embracing disruptive digital technology could lead to substantial cost savings.

Off the shelf, pro-sumer gear straddles the line between consumer and professional kit but costs substantially less. Open source software can extend the life of aging computers in the office, can run the servers and handle most CMS functions. Open-source content-management systems might not be ready for the largest sites, but most small- to medium-sized news sites could easily use Drupal or WordPress for their entire site. In the hands of a competent contractor with the occasional tweaking from a third-party vendor, the site will easily cope with moderate traffic.

I even think there is a possible radical model where there is a small office that handles core administrative and sales functions but the journalists are by and large dispersed, tele-commuting as much as possible. They would work as close to the story and their sources as possible and file remotely. They can use Skype or IM to communicate with their managers, and Twitter-like service Yammer to keep in touch with each other and help prevent a sense of isolation. Maybe I’m advocating this because as a journalist who worked in a foreign bureau and often out in the field for several years, this type of working seems natural to me.

A lot of successful digital content businesses already work on this model, and I think that we’ll see more competition in this space from within the industry. In this downturn, digital outcasts made redundant by traditional news organisations will start their own boot-strapped news organisations, potentially pushing many of their former employers to the wall, unless the incumbents radically, not incrementally, remake themselves. It is only a matter of time. The digital disrupters will run very lean, digitally-focused businesses with multiple revenue streams, as Steve suggests.

For a model of the thinking that will drive this type of business, look to this post by Eric Ries HOW TO: Raise Money in a Down Economy on Mashable. He serves as a venture advisor for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and talks about trying to raise money for a venture in 2004, when scepticism remained after the crash. His advice is:

The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of raising money in a down economy is to build a great company. A great startup is more than just a miniature version of a great large company. All of its process should be focused on innovating and learning. Today, it’s possible to use a combination of free and open source software, community-generated content, and agile software development to bring new products to market with extremely low cost.

Add professionally created and curated content and apply this model for an innovation-led business, and you’ll find a way out of this perfect storm affecting the newspaper industry. It’s eerily similar to the Newspaper Next project recommendations for good reason.

However, I ask those of you toiling in the industry right now. How close is this disruptive way of doing business to the environment at your news organisation?

  • Is your company focused on learning and innovation?
  • To what extent is your company using free and open-source software?
  • Is your company focused on delivering information while cutting costs?
  • Is your company looking for new ways to partner with and build new relationships with your audience?

Cutting costs doesn’t just have to happen through job cuts. Companies need empower their people to work smarter, spend money more wisely, and focus on doing more with less. There are many ways to achieve this, and I think we’ll see experimentation and innovation this year as the economic crisis deepens. Necessity will be the mother of re-invention.

links for 2009-01-13

Ada Lovelace Day needs you

We are just 95 signatories off reaching our target of 1000 people, all promising to blog about a woman they admire on 24 March 2009. I had originally been a bit worried that we wouldn’t see 13 people per day sign up, but the reaction to the pledge has been just awe inspiring. Now my aim is to get 1000 people within the first seven days – which means that we have to reach our target by 10pm tonight, GMT.

If you haven’t signed the pledge, please do. If you haven’t blogged about it or Twittered about it yet, please do. We have less than twelve hours to hit the target!

links for 2009-01-11

  • Kevin: Fred Wilson writes: "So to me, avoiding the Big Yellow Taxi moment comes down to solving the business model question for microjournalism. Is there a way beyond ads to compensate microjournalists? Subscription seems like one approach but what can you charge for online? Participating in expert networks might be another approach. Speaking and writing books could be a third. My gut tells me that microjournalists are going to have to do more than just post to their blog to earn a living. In fact the blog will probably be the loss leader that keeps them in the game."
  • Kevin: Alan Mutter writes: "With the worst economy in decades compounding a fierce secular contraction of the newspaper industry, the challenge for No. 2 papers will be stiff for standalone papers in places like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco."
  • Kevin: Doc Searls talks about how people are still writing about the Cluetrain Manifesto now nine years after it was published.
  • Kevin: It's not the internet that is killing newspapers at the moment, it's the economy and some badly timed financial bets, says Steve Yelvington. "But that doesn't mean print is coming back. Happy days will not be here again. Because as the economic cycle knocks down the newspaper, secular change rushes in to the empty seat at the table. Secular change includes the effects of the Internet, but also market fragmentation, restructuring of the retail landscape, and other changes."
  • Kevin: Mark Glaser writes about a new American-based, and some say, Amerian-focused, international journalism project, GlobalPost. "(The) business model includes site sponsors, who pay for long-term association with the website, as well as syndication deals with newspapers and a $199-per-year premium offering called Passport with more inside information."
  • Kevin: There is no sugarcoating it. The outlook for newspaper publishers in the US is dismal. eMarketer estimates that newspaper advertising revenues declined 16.4% in 2008 to $37.9 billion.