Wiki what? Wiki who? Wiki why?

Carlos Virgen rounds up some thoughts on wiki use by news organizations, but I always get the feeling that most reporters and editors stop reading at the word “wikitorial,” freak out, and hide under the desks.

Still here?

Good. Carlos has a great idea about using a wiki as a “contextual archive” for related stories. (Matt Thompson might call them “topics.”)

Carlos says:

“So maybe calling it a wiki is the wrong thing to do. Maybe it would be more precise to call it a contextual archive of news stories. Although I think incorporation wiki conventions such as public input via comments and edits (after a reasonable registration to preclude trolls) should be a big part of this feature.”

I like the idea, but I’d like to reiterate my frequent pitch for using wiki software to build an evergreen “FAQ About [Your Town Here].”

It doesn’t even need to be a fully open to the public for editing endeavor — you could use one account for your entire news organization and let any staff edit it.

This is really a wiki in FAQ’s clothing.  This, my friends, is a gateway wiki.

It should be good for SEO if you do it right, it would drive traffic to your news site (because you would link to stories that helped answer the questions, yes?) and it could serve as trip-to-the-morgue-free reference material for reporters.

Looking for those notes on who was the district superintendent in 1981?  Would you rather search your news site (or a filing cabinet) or search your wiki that has links to the pages for the school district, the year, the superintendent, all superintendents, and links to the relevant stories if you really need them after all that?

Back in Santa Cruz, I always thought this would be perfect during tourist season.  Entries on parking, the Boardwalk, Umbrella Man, surf lessons, etc…  The questions locals constantly answer. Well, maybe I answered these more often than most as a bartender, but you get the point.

Then, how about a front page print tease on a regular basis with a fun “fact about town” to drive people to the FAQ and let them know it’s there?

This is low-hanging fruit if you ask me.  I recommend MediaWiki, which looks, feels, and acts like Wikipedia, making it familiar to readers and less complicated than I expected for editors.

[UPDATE: Derek Willis tweeted that he covered this ground and came to similar conclusions in 2005.]

[2nd UPDATE: Brad Flora of Windy Citizen and I ended up having a video chat this afternoon to talk out some ideas around this. Check it out below.]


Should local news sites use wikis? from Knight Pulse on Vimeo.

Carnival of Journalism: Are we asking the right questions about online revenue models?

As is my habit, I’m running behind on my Carnival of Journalism post this month, set to the timely and tuneful whistles and bangs of talk about whether a newspaper’s online revenue could support the newsroom, how long the newspaper of record will keep the press running, and what a major metro in a failed JOA can do to survive online.

So, the question, posed by Paul Bradshaw (and be sure to check out the Seesmic thread as well) is as follows:

“How do you financially support journalism online?”

Of course, as is my habit, I’m going to have to sharpen that question up a bit, lest I fall prey to the temptation to speculate wildly about the future of major metro newspapers and their finances, as I’m sure I’ve done in the past.

So let’s get specific.

Here’s what I’m not interested in talking about:

Whether the current online revenue of a giant newspaper could support its newsroom staff.  I think that’s an apples/oranges problem.  Shutting down the press is not a hydraulic maneuver — it does not occur in a vacuum — it affects brand and upsell revenue and staffing and all sorts of parts move and grind against each other when you flip that switch on a large scale.  So, looking at two columns in a spreadsheet and saying “oh, they match” is a bit simplistic for my taste.

Great, so, moving on.

Well, wait, not yet.  One more thing to get out of the way:

I’m not (that) interested (today) in trying to figure out what revenue, then, will support major metro newspapers online.  When a major city loses its last print edition, it will be because it has already been replaced, in terms of reporting, advertising, commentary, and yes, journalism, by (mostly) smaller organizations.

And by definition, I expect a newspaper.com in a no-print city to look and feel infinitely different than it does now, to be a distributed news service, the sum of dozens of tiny parts, a portal to a wide variety of platforms where bits of news pushed out and pulled in.

(Right, so again, these are all the things I’m not going to talk about today. Right. Sure.)

My question, then, is how to support a small, agile, online-only news organization.

And that’s a much easier question to answer, isn’t it?

Let’s start with three obvious ways:

  1. Local Advertising. What?  You thought online advertising couldn’t support online journalism?  Well, it all depends on scale.  If you’re building a community news site for a 10-square-mile area, you’re likely to find a set of local businesses that have never had an advertisement online before, and certainly not running on a news source that exclusively covers the area in which their most likely customers live.  A combination of banner ads sold at reasonable rates, business listings, and sponsorships should bring in a portion of your revenue.
  2. Freemium Classifieds. What?  You thought craigslist killed every possible opportunity for local classified ad sales?  No.  Not in hundreds (thousands?) of markets in between major cities, and maybe not at the neighborhood-level.  Either way, you’re going to make money off classifieds without turning away one-time customers who aren’t interesting in paying to sell that old tricycle.  Here’s how:  Offer new customers five free ads.  After that, they pay.  Businesses always pay.  Real estate brokers and car dealerships pay a premium, especially to add video to their ads.  The key to this?  A simple self-service system.  Keep the interface basic and friendly, and tailor it to your community.
  3. Community-Funded Reporting. What? You’re worried that you won’t be able to pay for long-form investigative reporting on a small community site budget? The simple answer is that the community will pay for the stories that would otherwise be missed by a larger, slower, all-encompassing news organization with a broad coverage area. See the Spot.Us project for live examples of enterprise reporting that were funded, a few dollars at a time, by community members and other interested parties (like me) who don’t live in the area anymore, but still take an interest in local issues.

After that, there are less obvious ways to keep a small organization financially afloat, but they’ll vary based on your skills, staffing, and neighborhood.

Does that local business need a Web site to go with their banner ad?  I hear there are these new things called “blogs” that might be easy for them to maintain once you set them up with one, handling the hosting, domain management, and upgrades for a fee.

Other moving parts to keep an eye on:

  • Ethan Zuckerman asks if ad-support journalism is viable, using the example of a 25k print circulation newspaper as a point of reference for his thoughtful analysis of the logic behind CPM ad pricing online.
  • VentureBeat on changes at Federated Media, a display advertising network for technology blogs and news sites.  The changes seem to focus on getting away from straight-ahead banner advertising.
  • No News Is Bad News, a group in Seattle trying to figure out what to do next with the Post-Intelligencer, which is likely to fold as a print newspaper around 50 days from now after not finding a buyer.

Looking back: My year at the Santa Cruz Sentinel

For those of you unfamiliar with my personal and professional timeline, I worked at the Santa Cruz Sentinel from October 2006 through the end of September 2007, first in a position accurately titled Webmaster, and later as the Online Editor, working in a mostly bright, young newsroom in downtown Santa Cruz, blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  I walked to work.  I liked it.

Morale got pretty crappy there a couple corporate owners into my stay, and rather than stick around when the newsroom moved a couple miles up the highway out of town, I took a new job with a GateHouse Media in Fairport, NY, worked from home for a while, and then moved out here to the frozen (well, it’s been warm and melty for a couple days as I write this) tundra.

So the year in question isn’t 2008, it’s October 2006 through September 2007.

Tom Honig was the executive editor at the Sentinel during my time there, and along with Don Miller, the managing editor, presided over what were clearly pretty crappy times for a local newspaper.

If you’ve been reading my blog on any sort of regular basis, you know that I’m not one to pull punches when it comes to newspaper management, but I am going to disappoint you if you expect me to dish about the miniature dramas and deleted blog posts and questionable decisions that are the fodder of local e-mail newsletters and DeCinzo cartoons.

In other words, sure, these guys weren’t geniuses at operating a newspaper in a market that was completely, utterly, and politically disconnected from them, but hey, they certainly weren’t the only ones in that situation in 2006-2007.

That said, I was curious when Honig passed along a link to a recent story he wrote for the local alt-weekly about the state of the Sentinel since MediaNews bought the paper.

Here’s a clip:

“Community newspapers ought to forget about the frivolous stories. Sure, go ahead and put wire stories about Madonna and Heather Locklear somewhere in the paper. But when it comes to local, the core audience–the ones who will keep buying the paper–want real news. Is the water clean, and is there enough of it? If you oppose widening Highway 1, what real-world solution is there to mass transit? How much pollution is spewed into the air over Highway 1, and would it be less or more if a lane were added? Forget the tree-sitters at UCSC–what kind of research is being done on campus, and how about a story explaining in simple language what they’re working on at the Human Genome Project? Is illegal immigration affecting wages in Santa Cruz? What has happened to all those loan officers from the housing boom? Is District Attorney Bob Lee looking into any illegal predatory lending practices? If he isn’t, why not”

There’s nothing in there that’s news to me, and anyone who was in an A1 meeting that year with Tom and Don know what in that paragraph to take with a grain of salt, but it certainly did get me thinking about what I learned (a lot) from my year at the Sentinel.

Here are a few of the more specific things I learned at the Sentinel that should apply to any newsroom:

  • The copy chief is likely to be the smartest person in the room.
  • Make sure that crazy thing you heard on the scanner isn’t a drill.  Do not speed over to the wharf unless you’ve confirmed there’s a car in the water, or a beached whale.  (Alternate: If the sun is setting and you really feel like taking a walk on the wharf, don’t confirm anything. Just go.)
  • If anyone tells you it’s a good idea to do a daily video newscast that’s anything less than Ledger Live, tell them they’re wasting your time, then go outside with the video camera and shoot something new.
  • Make friends with the cops reporter, who will have a steady supply of breaking news.
  • Any camera will do the job when news breaks.  Many reporters e-mailed in photos taken with mobile phones from accident scenes and other situations where it would have been at least an hour before a photographer’s camera or a reporter’s SD card would have been back in the newsroom to be ravaged.
  • Let everyone take a turn with the audio and video equipment, but put everything in crash cases so when it falls off their desk, it bounces..  (You know who you are…)
  • Don’t lay off the education reporter AND the higher education reporter in a college town with serious school funding issues.
  • If you can’t figure out what photo would go with your story, you’ve written the wrong story.  Go back to your notes and find a human being.
  • When you’re shooting video for a newspaper and you find yourself standing next to three shooters from local TV, you’re standing in the wrong place.  Don’t bother duplicating their story — go find something better than a stand-up.
  • The reporter who writes the “society” column is the person to go to when you need a source, or a phone number, or a story idea.
  • If you want to get anything really great done, treat every conversation with management as though it were your exit interview. 😉

Bonus link: A letter to the editor in the alt-weekly the following week, which manages to both amuse and sadden while it repeats the common jab at newspapers that don’t write stories about their own layoffs. (It really is a personnel issue, people.)

Super-extra bonus link: The video I shot of the last press run in downtown Santa Cruz before the press was sold for scrap and the Mercury News started printing the Sentinel.

Only-in-Santa-Cruz bonus link: The truck carrying the press over Highway 17 wrecked, providing the Sentinel with a news story.  Eh, actually, no link to that.  Either it happened before the Sentinel switched content management systems and is gone from the Interwebs for now, or it’s behind an archive paywall anyway.  The jist of it: The truck carrying the Sentinel press to be scrapped rolled over on Highway 17.

Carnival of Journalism: Five positive predictions for new media in 2009

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Dave Cohn is asking for positive (if possible) predictions for the new media world of 2009.

How about 5?

  1. Mobile video streaming goes mainstream: Probably tied to disaster/breaking news reporting from non-professionals, a la 9/11 blogs, the YouTube tsunami of 2004, Flickr bombings of 2005, and the livetweeted siege of #Mumbai in 2008.  Whether it’s the expansion of a startup like Qik or Flixwagon or a wildcard like an improved iPhone with a real video camera, something is going to change in 2009 that’s going to put live mobile video at our fingertips.
  2. Fewer newspaper jobs means more local news startups:  As major metro news organizations continue to contract, consolidate, and implode, more journalists will walk away from the press, but not walk away from reporting.  Right now, most of this is happening at the national level (think: Politico) or in local blogs, but as more entrepreneurial journalists leave the “industry,” more of them will start small businesses of their own, reporting on their neighborhoods.
  3. Local news organizations will continue to improve at being “of” the Web and not just “on” it:  Yep, that means more newspapers (and local TV stations) on Twitter, blogging, livechatting, streaming video, participating in comment threads, and generally getting in gear — though still perhaps far behind the pace of Internet time.  This seems obvious enough, although as a media critic, if all you’re looking at is a selection of major metro papers, you’re not going to see the changes as clearly as readers — or participants in the news site’s social web — will see them.
  4. Alternative business models for monetizing journalism will flourish: There are plenty of ideas kicking around already on this front, although few of them are coming from traditional news organizations.  That won’t matter, because people with ideas for solving the riddle of funding quality journalism without the revenue of a standard daily print product are already having success.
  5. Crowdsourcing tools will evolve on the backs on existing platforms: I’m thinking DocumentCloud plus Twitter or Facebook, or some similar combination that lets a large news organization with a large social network power through large documents (think: US Attorney firings data dump analysis at Talking Points Memo, but with a much bigger crowd and structured data instead of a comment thread.)

And of course, a bonus prediction:

  • Major newspapers and huge newspaper companies will continue to consolidate, sputter, fail, and close — but it won’t matter.  The people formerly known as readers will be too busy informing each other about their world to notice.

So, got any predictions of your own for 2009? (Remember, we’re trying to keep it positive…)

Dear Blogosphere, There’s more to newspapers than The New York Times

I’ve been holding back on this for a long time, and I write enough about the Web development team at nytimes.com enough to be held to this as well, but really, I’m incredibly tired of reading media and technology bloggers debate the future of news as if the only existing newspaper in the world is The New York Times or other papers of its size, scope, or readership.

Here’s a link to an extremely incomplete list of all the newspapers in the U.S. on Wikipedia.

So please, when you talk about “newspapers” or “the future of news” or anything of the sort, please stop thinking about what will replace The New York Times.  The answers to that are obvious, and we see them now at Politico and HuffPo and niche blogs and even Twitter from time to time.

The far, far more interesting question, from my point of view, is what will replace all those other, smaller, newspapers on that long list, especially the ones in towns without blankets of TV coverage, or public radio, or an existing blog community.

The massive changes in the way we get informed that everyone can easily see the negative (for newspapers) evidence of in the form of major metro layoffs and cratering circulation numbers certainly are taking longer to fully filter down to smaller newspapers in smaller towns, but they are certainly filtering down.

So, if it’s journalism that you’re interested in saving, please don’t worry about solving the problem of the NYT.  Worry about solving the problem of keeping communities informed about themselves as what used to be the easiest way to do so becomes economically unwise.

As the printing press fades from memory, the question isn’t going to be, how do you feel about there being no New York Times, it’s going to be something like:  How do you feel about how much you know about your world?

My world happens to be both bigger and smaller than all the news that’s fit to publish.

/minor rant

Further notes on how investigative journalism continues in online-only news organizations

From a New York Times story on VoiceOfSanDiego.org and other onlne-only local news organizations doing original reporting and investigative journalism:

The people who run the local news sites see themselves as one future among many, and they have a complex relationship with traditional media. The say that the deterioration of those media has created an opening for new sources of news, as well as a surplus of unemployed journalists for them to hire.

“No one here welcomes the decline of newspapers,” said Andrew Donohue, one of two executive editors at VoiceofSanDiego. “We can’t be the main news source for this city, not for the foreseeable future. We only have 11 people.”

Eleven people.  Only?  For those of you taking notes, that’s an online-only news organization with 11 employees in one city.  Elsewhere, in the caption of the photo in the story, this gem:

“Its audience is small, about 18,000 monthly unique visitors”

18,000 uniques!  That measures up pretty well against plenty of small-to-medium newspapers with decades of history and a big, heavy press in the back room, even if that’s just a small slice of the local market in San Diego.

via @journalismnews

Placeblogger: More human than ever

Check out the redesigned Placeblogger a 2007 Knight News Challenge winner.

The aggregation-by-location niche seems to be blowing up lately, especially as startups try to hitch their maps to the iPhone’s wagon, but Placeblogger feels like real live humans are writing blog posts in real live places.  I like that.

via the Knight Foundation Blog.

See also: Build your own local news application using Outside.In’s API

Dealing with the elephant: Incremental change

This is the second post in a short series I’m going to write about the business model for online news before I go back to my usual divisive blathering about how to avoid bureaucracy and feed trolls.  The starting point, the givens in the equation, are listed here.  Suggest what I should tackle next using the Skribit widget in the sidebar of my blog.


“Elephant Mud Frolic” by Intrepidation on Flickr.

If you read the post I wrote last week about building better business directories on news Web sites, you’ll notice a few things about the approach I’m taking to talking about the business model(s) for making money in online news:

  1. I’m not offering up some massive overhaul to the entire system of paid journalism at the moment, like taking newspapers non-profit, but there’s a lot to be said for that model, depending on how you feel about PBS or the BBC.
  2. What I’m making an attempt to focus on are incremental changes; ideally, these should be moves that can be put into action at your site quickly and effectively, without major staffing or organization overhauls, even though that might not be the worst idea.
  3. There are plenty of ideas floating around the Web that qualify as “little things” you can do to grow revenue on a news site, but I think somewhere in between the smallest things (like adding Google AdSense or other targeted text-link ads to all your ad positions) and the largest things (complete re-organization of the news industry), there’s a market for ideas that revolve around some of the medium-sized steps you can take to open new revenue streams that have little, if anything, to do with your print product.

For example, how about starting an ad network for local blogs?

It’s a simple equation:  Local bloggers have content; the local news organization has advertisers.  Keep it simple: Sell banner ad positions on the network as an upsell when an advertiser buys a spot on your news site.  “For $5 a month more, we can put your ad on a network of 25 local blogs with X average page views per month.”  Split the revenue with the bloggers 50/50 or come up with a formula based on page views.

Also, add a page featuring the latest headlines from the blog network to your news site.  For bonus points, keep an eye on that page and feature links to posts on relevant local blogs on article pages on a regular basis.  For super extra bonus points, throw up a Ning network for the local bloggers to give them a place to talk with each other directly.

So again, as with the business directory plan, you’ll find that running an ad network for local blogs involves the news and advertising sides of your organization actually communicating from time to time as you add new blogs to the network and award monthly revenue shares.

I’ve seen examples of local blog networks maintained by news organizations, and I’ve seen examples of advertising networks for higher traffic blogs, but has anyone tried what I’m pitching here?

The stenography ends here

A few takeaways from this morning’s presentations at the Knight Foundation meeting today in Chicago:

  1. The stenography ends here. The days of chasing cops and government down for raw data (crime blotter, etc.) to parse into 8 inch stories is coming to an end.  Everyblock and the Sunlight Foundation are a good start.  More projects that extend these efforts to get government to make raw digital data available are an essential step to newsroom reorganization.
  2. New media tools are (just?) a means to an end, but ignore the trends at your own peril. While it doesn’t matter which video platform you use to get content out into the diaspora, it matters that you understand that there are existing best practices for online video, there are independent producers of news, entertainment and information using those platforms and practices, and there are HUGE success stories already in the medium.
  3. The idea that professional journalism is the “lifeblood of democracy” could be outdated. Could be.  When the barrier to publication and communication is as low as it is today, the democratic role of things like newspapers has to evolve.  There’s a big disconnect between the necessary giant investigative award-winning reporting coming from places like the New York Times and Washington Post and the type of local investigative work that gives a community information that affects their daily lives.  They’re getting that information from many sources, and not all of them are professional capital-J Journalism.

Awesome conversations here as always. Follow some of the livetweeting if you can.

You can be a journalist without a job at a mainstream news organization

That headline seems obvious, no?

Then why is it that when journalists see layoffs, buyouts, and newspaper companies in trouble, they sigh and say “Should I stop wasting my time and start applying to advertising agencies?

Really?

Here are a few ways you be a journalist without a full-time job at a mainstream news organization:

  1. Become a placeblogger.  Report on your community.  Beat the local newspaper, because you’re on the ground in your neighborhood and they’re probably not.  Make friends, and eventually, you may find yourself in the advertising business after all, selling space on your awesome local news blog.  Example: Baristanet.
  2. Freelance.  It sounds scarier than it is.  If you’re passionate about your beat, you might already be blogging about it.  That means you have some sort of body of work, or demonstration of your expertise on a given subject.  Use that to sell your ideas to magazines, niche publications that have money to spend and small in-house staffs.  My first paid reporting gigs were in a tiny little niche of the tech industry that I was interested in, if not necessarily passionate about.
  3. Got an idea?  Get a grant.  The Knight News Challenge is a great place to start.  If you have a great idea for how to do something innovative with local news, anywhere, you should be applying for a News Challenge grant, and this time next year, you could be getting paid to do something amazing, full-time.
  4. Get a job at a non-profit, and do journalism that matters for them.  Is that something like PR?  Maybe, but if you love the work they do, isn’t this a bit of a shortcut to saving the world?

None of these gigs involve working full-time for a big media company.  What was it exactly that you wanted out of journalism?  To work for a big company, or to be a journalist?

It’s not that simple, of course.  My health insurance is a bit more reliable now than it was when I was a student or a bartender.  (And you don’t even want to know how underinsured I was when I freelanced in the movie business.)

But if journalism is your passion, you’ll find the work you want.