Waiting for Hearst: A Tragicomedy

The media is has reached an almost unbelievable state of navel-gazing (which I am perpetuating right now). Much of it appears warranted as we go through what appears to be an unprecedented transition in the world of news, newspapers and new media. Of course it’s not at all unprecedented, it’s just been a while since we went a transition of this magnitude. TV was quite a big one, but most of us have no memory of that. A hundred years ago Pultizer and Hearst turned the newspaper business on it’s head in their epic battle for supremacy. In the process they changed journalism entirely and were roundly criticized for it. They were blamed for coarsening journalism. I’ve heard that bloggers have been similarly criticized.

Real Time is A Hundred Years Old

They ushered in the age of the pundit, of the investigative journalist. They changed the design of newspapers and introduced new technologies to sell their papers such as color photography (see that around much today?). They even introduced the first blushes of interactivity and real time news: they used the telegraph and telephone to have reporters give real time updates and they illustrated them on simple displays outside their office headquarters. This was a hundred years ago!

McKinley in The Grips Of Money Interests – Homer Davenport

Personality Sells

Hearst had the good fortune of coming from wealth, but that isn’t what enabled him to succeed. Plenty of wealthy people failed where he succeeded. In fact The New York Journal had already been run by a couple of rich guys who had failed when he bought it (interesting historical side note: the founder of Hearst’s famous newspaper was Albert Pultizer, brother of the more famous Joseph). Hearst succeeded for lots of reasons, but mostly because he aggressively recruited the best and brightest and gave them credit. At a time when papers spoke with “one voice” and denied virtually anyone a byline, Hearst not only gave his people bylines, he put their pictures on the front page. And he let them speak in their own voice and voice their own opinion. His was one of the first papers to voice multiple perspectives. His tolerance of quirky, almost crazy personalities was incredible. He occasionally had to go in search of a drunk reporter in all his local haunts to see where he had passed out.

Technology is Not New

Hearst loved technology. He once went up in a hot air balloon and took pictures of San Francisco giving people their first aerial view of their own city (his first paper was the San Francisco Examiner).

Innovation in Design Was Key – Yes, Even Then.

Hearst once gave the entire front page to an “cartoonist”, an area once reserved for magazines. He was not constrained by columns. To be fair, much of what he did was an extension of the innovations of Pulitzer, but where Pulitzer spent most of his time creating infighting amongst his people while managing them from his yacht, Hearst would dance a jig in the newsroom with the paper on the floor as he read through it.

Waiting…

Waiting for Godot is an enigmatic play at best and defies summary for the most part. But here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Waiting for Godot follows two days in the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim him as an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognize him were they to see him. To occupy themselves, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide — anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay”

Sound familiar?

Matt Cutts on the Value of Answering Questions

I’ll just cut to the chase and let you play the video. The whole thing is about link building and worth listening to in its entirety (it’s short). If you want to hear the bit about answering questions skip ahead to 1m37s.

As a side note: If you read Matt Cutts’s Blog, he has a post on how to skip straight to the part of a youtube video you want to play. Unfortunately, WordPress has it’s own unique way of embedding YouTube videos which makes that neat feature impossible. Either that or I’m an idiot. As much as I’m annoyed by option #1, I’m not keen on accepting option #2. So, if you think it’s option #2, please provide proof in the comments, that way I can at least benefit from the potential shame and humiliation.

Questions, Questions, Questions

Questions tell you a lot. What’s asked, what’s answered, how they’re answered. Here’s two sites that take an interesting approach:

Fifty People One Question

Ask a lot of people the same question and you learn something generally about who we are.

5Q4 – 5 Questions For

Business week collects questions from the community for top newsmakers and then asks them those questions on video.

Do you have any others to add? Tell me in the comments.

Interactive Journalism. What is it?

The go-to phrase for anyone talking about news sites is “interactive”. But what the heck does that mean when it comes to journalism?

First, let me define what I mean by journalism because not enough people do. My definition is “borrowed” from David Nordfors: he defines journalism broadly as content created to meet the needs/demands of the public. This is in stark contrast to PR or activism which is created to meet the needs of the company, author or cause. As Pultizer said:

“Our repuplic and its press will rise or fall together… day after day, the existence of the newspaper is dependent on the approval of the public”.

News Doesn’t Pay

Mathew Ingram wrote a post today about the need for newspapers to “engage”. He includes a very interesting study by Hal Varian who points out that people spend on average only 70 seconds on online news a day. As Ingram is quick to point out, Varian is Google’s Chief Economist so the study is big on the economics and light on anything resembling a solution – and he may have an inherent bias given his employer. What is clear is that news companies have never made money on news, they’ve made money on the things that were adjacent to the news: classifieds, travel, car sales, etc. Those are gone and not surprisingly the news business is in a well publicized death spiral – well, traditional news as in newspapers and their digital equivalents. The solution: engagement. Get them to people to spend more than 70 seconds on the site.

Will We Ever Get Beyond Comments?

Those are pretty words and the panacea for all things Internet. But does it have any relevance to journalism? As usual there is the must-have reference to “comments”. People read commented stuff more and they come back more. OK. That can pass for interaction… in 1999. Google itself has gone back and forth on allowing comments on their news section, so it’s funny coming from them. Ingram points out that more important than just comments is whether the journalist participates in the comments thread. When that happens, things improve significantly – no statistics on this are provided, but I certainly have witnessed it and experienced it. Bottom line: comments help, author participation makes all the difference, but comments really aren’t going to cut it.

The News Raises More Questions Than It Answers

Although the news is meant to inform, it typically raises more questions than it answers. Even a simple story about a car accident can raise questions: is that a dangerous intersection? how many accidents have there been at that spot? is anything being done to make it less dangerous? Most of this kind of data is readily available and has the potential to turn a tedious snippet into something interesting. Imagine if the story was about health care or a supreme court decision rather than a car accident?

Journalist Know A Lot More Then They Are Telling

Most journalists write a story that includes about a zillionth of what they actually know about the topic. When a journalist does a story on health care, or reports the latest congressional silliness, he/she actually knows a great deal more about the subject then is included in the piece being written. Many journalists could, and do, write books about the subjects they cover. In the news story they have some small number of words in which to cover “the news”.

Why Don’t We Capitalize On That Knowledge?

Since the news raises a lot of questions and the journalist knows a lot, why not let the readers ask the journalist some questions? Why doesn’t every news story end with something like: “If you have questions about this story then ask the journalist”. The community could then get answers to the questions raised by the news. When the Supreme Court rules on campaign finance I expect the journalist will cover the obvious implications. But I’d have a lot of questions as I imagine most people would.

Questions Are At The Heart Of Real Interaction

Ever sit around a dinner table or a conference table and have people tell you what they did that day or give you the departmental summary? If you have then you have also wished you were somewhere else. The thing that makes things interesting is when someone asks a question. The great thing about a question is that it implies interest on the part of the person asking and it gives the person answering a chance to express an opinion while being helpful. The questions asked invariably teach you something about the community and the answers, well they do too.

Journalists Know People

Let’s up the ante one step further. In the course of writing an article or covering a story, the journalist interviews sources. These people are either experts on the subject or people whose opinions are relevant because of their position (e.g. they are a politician). Why not let them answer questions too! Invite them to participate. Highlight their presence, invite the community to ask them questions, highlight their answers. The journalist already has their contact information and most people think they are not well represented by the media, so why not let them have a shot at it themselves and see how easy it is(n’t).

Should Everyone Be Allowed To Answer?

I could make a radical suggestion and even contemplate letting the community answer each others questions. I wouldn’t go overboard with this, not everyone in the community is an expert. But many of them are. So the solution is pretty simple. Yes. Let the community ask questions as well as answer them, but make sure the journalists answers come first.

Can You Make Money Doing This?

Well, first let’s agree that it’s likely to actually engage people and keep them on your site longer. In fact they will have a sense of membership on your site, especially if you give them a basic profile and aggregate their contributions on the profile – they’re now a contributor to your site! They have their own column/byline in the shape of a profile. They are community, they are engaged, they are then likely to come back. Good start.

Time is Money – Ask Facebook

Once you have an engaged community there are many more ways to make money. Look, if Facebook can make (a rumored) 1-2 billion dollars a year on their site then you have to believe that time is money. Facebook focused on getting them there and keeping them there and then… well they might make billions. So get ’em there, keep ’em there.

oh… and feel free to comment or better still ask me a question.

Is the Washington Post adopting the Murdoch Model?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Murdoch model (based on Hearst’s model) was basically to lose money on the newspaper and make it up in other businesses (although Hearst actually made money eventually). What was most important to these megalomaniacs was the power that newspapers brought them.

Kaplan & The Washington Post

There have been several mentions recently that the Washington Post is a good model for newspapers of the future because they have diversified their businesses and can, essentially, run The Washington Post on the profits of their education division:

“The Post’s education business, anchored by the Kaplan for-profit college and test-prep businesses, contributed 58% of 2009’s revenue and all of its $195 million of operating income.” Barron’s.

Things we’ve learned about Q&A

We’ve been working with great people on their Q&A sites for a while now and we’ve learned a lot in the process. I won’t try and cover a tenth of it here, but I will start building a list of it all on our Wiki soon. These are just a few things that keep coming up or are more recent insights:

Experts Increase Membership

YouSaidIt is good for community Q&A, but what makes it exceptional is the way it handles experts. Experts can be people in positions of authority (politicians for e.g.) or subject matter experts. They can be regular contributors or special guests. Experts can appear on their own or they can be grouped into panels to discuss a subject. Whatever approach you take, experts will have a huge impact on your membership (i.e people who have signed up/contributed).

Capitalize on Your Staff Experts

Your staff has a huge amount of expertise. It may be in an area that they cover regularly (food, books, theater, etc) or it may be in a hobby or in a subject they have recently researched exhaustively. Bring them into the site either as a regular contributor (book recommendations, weekend plans) or as a special guest on a subjectthey have been writing about (bed bugs, second life, health care). Make use of all that information they gathered but never included in their article.

Q&A Should Be Part of Your Content/Design

Q&A content can be amazingly good. The best Q&A content should be featured in other sections of your site. If there was a great Q&A about pizza places in your city, it should be in the food section, not just in the Q&A. And your food section should always include a link to the Q&A: “Wondering where to get the best brunch? Ask”. Even more important is linking your copy to the person who wrote it and the people who were interviewed into the Q&A. Most articles include quotes and interviews with people whose opinions are relevant or interesting. Invite them to participate in the Q&A and link from your article directly to the Q&A: “Have more questions about training your dog? Ask Doggy Man directly”.

I could go on, and should, but I’ll continue in the wiki and link to it in a future post. If you have learned things that have helped please share them in the comments. I’ll include them in the wiki with a link back to you.

Tired of Sex? Read a Good Book

Algorithms are all very nice, but you can’t tell them what you don’t like and they don’t expand your horizons. Worst of all, they have no clue what you feel like reading right now. I’ve confused Amazon to the point of it’s being useless because I buy all kinds of books, some of them for work, pleasure, friends, some of them for my friends kids. If anyone even thinks that I should spend time teaching Amazon what I like then let me say that you haven’t tried it or you have too much time on your hands.

Helping You Find the Right Book at the Right Time

The Stranger has one of the best book editors around. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of books. Here’s what you do: tell him what you feel like reading next, tell him what you like and what you dislike and tell him if you want to read something in a different genre or format. He recommended I read a graphic novel that was in the style of the things I liked. It was great.

Tired of Sex?

Most “advice columns” are focused on manners, relationships and sex. At last there’s one that focuses on more intellectual pursuits. Reading through his past recommendations is a treat in itself, no need to even ask a question, you’ll get all kinds of ideas of what to read. And if you’re not tired of sex, then go read Savage Love. You won’t have to go far, it’s in the same place.