Be the platform, use the platform, syndicate the platfom

A lot of talk about platforms for news these days, no?

A sampling:

Joey Baker at CoPress defines one of the many things that “newspaper platform” could mean to a local news site:

“…taking lessons from Gawker, Slashdot and the New York Times, and aggregating everything. If there’s a story online that’s relevant to your community, link to it. Who cares if you wrote it or not? The idea is to be the source of news. If people know to just come to you first for their information, it doesn’t matter if they eventually click off your site. They will keep coming back to you for more.”

John A. Byrne posts the 2008 “User Engagement Report Card” for BusinessWeek, probably the most impressive magazine site I’ve seen, getting into blogs and what we now call social media early in the game:

(5) Five Questions For…: Spearheaded by BusinessWeek’s Innovation team, this feature encourages readers to submit questions that our staff will ask leading corporate executives and public officials. We select five questions from those submitted by readers and pose them to such CEOs as Bob Nardelli of Chrysler, Tim Brown of the design firm IDEO, Aetna’s Ron Williams and Best Buy’s incoming CEO, Brian Dunn.” [links are John’s, not mine.]

Zach Seward from NiemanLab talked with a developer at the TimesOpen conference who said this about what the NYT could do with its increasingly awe-inspiring package of software for producing online news and APIs to access its stories and data:

“A company like The New York Times, which has a lot of resources and assets on the user-experience and interaction front and also on the content front, could leverage those resources and allow small, local newspapers, small, local media companies that don’t have the same level of interaction and are just playing catch-up but have really good access to content because they’re geographically local. The New York Times could potentially provide or a company like The New York Times could potentially provide a sort of a white-label, maybe hosted solution where, you know, the smaller news outlets could bring their content in.” [More transcribed plus video here.]

I’ve made it a habit to poke friends and peers at the NYT and Washington Post from time to time over the past couple years, asking them when they’ll give those awesome tools to other papers in the chain, or when they’ll push out syndicated infographics for the Web as part of an online wire service the way they might with print.  They usually smile and mumble something about Facebook or embeddable widgets and wander away.

But, the truth is that most of these tools are probably (?) built internally for internal use, and make the most sense when they’re matched up with who-knows-what-sort-of-crazy frontend system for stories and data that pushes content and files around the network inside their buildings.

It’s much, much, much easier to produce the data and open that up, than to get into the business of software development for everyone.

But man, wouldn’t it be cool?  That’s a platform a small news site could jump up and down on.

[via folks like @jayrosen_nyu and @cnewvine, although I might have spotted them from @johnabyrne, @joeybaker, @copress, and in my RSS reader as well. But you should follow all of those people.]

[Full disclosure: I agreed to join the board of CoPress awhile back, I said I wasn’t going to talk about the New York Times so much, and a buddy of mine is an editor at BusinessWeek.]

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

Technology is easy; labor is hard

Aron Pilhofer of nytimes.com on the hardware, software, and costs associated with building the best interactive data projects in the news business:

Everything we use is free and open-source. Our platform is Ruby on Rails backed by Mysql databases running on Ubuntu servers. The cost here isn’t software, or even hardware, which is relatively cheap these days through hosting companies like Amazon EC2 (on the high end) or Slicehost (on the low end). The price most news organizations (and it’s not just small ones) seem reluctant to pay is for people — developers like the ones in my group who can build the infrastructure to support the rich, deeply engaging web features that so many people love about our site.

Read the whole thing at Old Media, New Tricks.

Sunday morning links: Data, DocumentCloud, and the Obama Bounce for news

A few things I haven’t had time yet to dig deeper on, but maybe you will:

“4. Go off the reservation: No matter how good your IT department is, their priorities are unlikely to be in sync with yours. They’re thinking big-picture product roadmaps with lots of moving pieces. Good luck fitting your database of dog names (oh yes, we did one of those) into their pipeline. Early on, database producer Ben Welsh set up a Django box at projects.latimes.com, where many of the Times’ interactive projects live. There are other great solutions besides Django, including Ruby on Rails (the framework that powers the Times’ articles and topics pages and many of the great data projects produced by The New York Times) and PHP (an inline scripting language so simple even I managed to learn it). Some people (including the L.A. Times, occasionally) are using Caspio to create and host data apps, sans programming. I am not a fan, for reasons Derek Willis sums up much better than I could, but if you have no other options, it’s better than sitting on your hands.”

“To get a sense of DocumentCloud’s potential, take a look at the database of Guantánamo Bay detainees that the Times made public on Nov. 3, when it was accompanied by a 1,500-word story. Each record is linked to relevant government documents that have been made public since ‘enemy combatants’ were first held there in 2002. Pilhofer said the database isn’t using a full-featured version of DocViewer, but it certainly demonstrates the benefit of browsing documents grouped by subject rather than, say, the order in which the Defense Department happened to release them. What’s remarkable about the Gitmo collection, aside from its massive scope, is that the Times has offered up this information at all. As Pilhofer said, ‘It’s not usually in a newsroom’s DNA to release something like that to the public — and not just the public, the competition, too.'”

Watch out for secondary characters with more interesting stories than your protagonist

That’s good advice up there in the title of this post. I got it from a screenwriting teacher, and it’s been a running joke around our house for the last week based on a couple movies we’ve watched lately.

And it’s also good advice for narrative journalists.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the Long Bet between Dave Winer and Martin Nisenholtz.

Just in case anyone is keeping score, I’ll add my name to the list of unofficial judges who think Wikipedia was the winner.

Here’s the kicker from Rogers Cadenhead’s post on the topic:

“Winer predicted a news environment ‘changed so thoroughly that informed people will look to amateurs they trust for the information they want.’ Nisenholtz expected the professional media to remain the authoritative source for ‘unbiased, accurate, and coherent” information. Instead, our most trusted source on the biggest news stories of 2007 is a horde of nameless, faceless amateurs who are not required to prove expertise in the subjects they cover.”

He’s exaggerating (‘nameless, faceless’) to harp on the contrast between the interesting secondary character in this story and the protagonist/antagonist pair, but the point is clear:

The crowd beats the individual and the organization when it comes to …well, SEO is a factor… but the reason the crowd’s version of events floats to the top of search results has more to do with individuals linking to the crowd’s record than a header tag matching a title tag.

There’s plenty of intriguing thought about this being thrown around, including these bits:

  • Dave Winer: “The world that I hoped would come about did not. While blogs have broken many stories, they have not, in general, turned into the authoritative sources I hoped they would in 2002. When the blogosphere resembles journalism it’s often the tabloid kind.”
  • Paul Boutin: “Cadenhead has exposed the flaw in my genius idea: I presumed there were only two sides. That’s journalist math. Any real techie knows there are never only two values to anything in real life.”

Where’s Martin Nisenholtz’s blog, anyway?  I’m eager to hear his take on this.

And the last open-ended question: Who’s the third player in the scene you’re writing? For example, is there a third element in the Newspapers vs. craigslist equation?

Everybody’s Talking Heads

I’ve seen David Byrne’s blog post about a visit to the New York Times in too many places today to figure out where I saw it first.

Here’s my favorite graf:

“At present, it is mostly the ads in the Style section, and the glossy Sunday and T magazines that pay for a disproportionate amount of the newspaper’s running costs. Without the income from Gucci and Rolex, there probably wouldn’t be a Baghdad bureau. (That’s an exaggeration, but that’s the idea.)”

This would make great fodder for any number of grad classes I took at SJSU, especially Bill Briggs’ International Communications class.

Such a hard question. In theory, advertising for the luxury goods at the heart of the darkest corners of the American Dream is what’s paying for the continued survival of some of the most influential pieces of free press in the world.

Interesting little cycle.

Seven notes, six links

Hypothesis:
Dooce is (still) one of the best things on the Interweb.

Plea:
Jay Rosen has the beatblogging with a social network thing worked up pretty clearly at this point, but if the project doesn’t leave behind tools (a WordPress theme, a Drupal module, a useful set of forms — something more tangible than good ideas that other news organizations can use), it’s just twelve more reporters with a blog and a bunch of know-it-all commenters. [UPDATE: Wow, that sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? I’ll write something more practical about it later and add a link here.]

More:
The NYTimes.com tech aggregator thing is cute, but first of all, isn’t this space a little crowded? And second of all, can’t you just use the frigging Blogrunner algorithm to add headlines to your stories from blogs that link to them? It was doing that when you bought it.

Seriously:
Why did my house get two calls in one day from circulation salesfolk from the Mercury News? Could it be because there was an earthquake on their front page for the last two days and someone thought it was a good time to blitz Santa Cruz? Or because the local paper moves out of downtown this weekend? Or do they just hate children and want to wake up sleeping babies every chance they get?

Fact:
I have worked in a newsroom where the circulation employees (not their fault – I blame the software) would call newsroom employees — at their desks in the same building — trying to sell them a subscription.

Opinion:
Scott Adams is a wonderful, wonderful man.

Thanks:
To Rex for the clue about Hype Machine when he blogged (or twittered?) its redesign launch. If all I got from it was the song stuck in my head right now, that would have been enough.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re an editor

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Try as you might to control the home page of a news site, to set the agenda, to drive readers to the stories you think are most important, readers can find what they want on the Web without your help.

They don’t need you, editor.

What they need is news. And by news, I mean useful information about the neighborhood and/or town and/or state and/or country and/or world they live in or care about.

Yesterday’s news is not as useful as today’s news. Take that as a given.

Enter the River of News, stage left:
nytimesriver.com

That’s the New York Times, stripped of all ornamentation and visual framing, spit back out in a form that screens and phones and devices can easily understand and display as best suits them, at a reader’s request.

You can thank Dave Winer for that.

Doc Searls periodically reminds newspapers that the first part of that compound word is news not olds, and he’s done so again today:

“News is a river, not a lake. It is active, not static. It’s what’s happening, not what happened. Or not only what happened. But what happened — news as olds — is how we’ve understood news for as long as we’ve had newspapers. The happening kind of news came along with radio, and then television. Then we called it ‘live’. Still, even on the nightly news, what’s live is talking heads and reports from the field. The rest is finished stuff.”

So how can newspapers move from dead trees to the live web?

If we can take the simple steps of stepping away from the automated nightly feed and make it someone’s job to handle, edit, and post breaking news as it happens, live, then like Doc says, “This distinction is what will have us soon talking about the life of newspapers, rather than the death of them.”

Bonus link: Patrick Beeson says newspapers can learn from Twitter’s simplicity.