Are your readers a community?

I asked my Twitter followers what they think of substituting the word “community” for “readers” and I’m getting lots of good responses, many of them negative.

Either I didn’t know “community” had much of a stigma, or I spent too long working with “community” newspapers to notice. Back then, it seemed like a great linguistic way to hold a grizzled editor or publisher’s hand as they made the leap from thinking of the people in town as their “readers” to collaborating with them as “the former audience” as Dan Gillmor called them.

Twitter conversation embedded below, using Twickie to try it out.

ryansholin: I&#39ve been substituting the word “community” every time I start to type “readers” lately. What do you think?

about 44 minutes ago

lacajag: I like it. That&#39s what communication&#39s all about now.

about 42 minutes ago

greglinch: I&#39ve been liking “the former audience” more and more lately, but mostly avoid using it myself for some reason. Community = good.

about 41 minutes ago

scottros: good plan when readers really are community. True for some pubs/sites, not others. If not, then calling it so just rankles.

about 37 minutes ago

briandonohue: don&#39t like it. Use of community to describe online followers, etc is a pet peeve of mine.

about 35 minutes ago

CatrionaStuart: Depends. You can have readers and not community. IMHO community denotes sharing knowledge/ideas/function.

about 34 minutes ago

briandonohue: My readers are not part of my community. They won&#39t babysit my kids in a pinch or coach my kid soccer…

about 34 minutes ago

CharlieBeckett: I think community is almost a dead word now. Just because a group all read something doesn&#39t make them a cohesive community

about 5 minutes ago

Innovation is easy: Hand the camera to the stuntman

So the wife and I were watching Bourne Ultimatum this weekend on DVD.

(Yes, yes, I know, a few of you still know me as the former film student who was inspired to make movies because I knew I could do better than Lethal Weapon 2, but I still like a good action flick, OK?)

Anyway, good chase scenes.  Not mind-blowing, but good.  Except for this one shot

Matt Damon is racing across the rooftops of Tangier when he finally gets an angle on the bad guy.  He leaps across the alley and through the window — and the camera follows his character through the air, right up to the point when he hits the glass. (The shot in the trailer, linked above, might not be the exact same shot, or it’s from a different take, or my short-term memory that involves the glass breaking is faulty.)

While we watched it, that shot felt a little weird — the visual style of the film is really loose, handheld, crazy frenetic stuff, so it should have been felt normal, but it seemed at the time like a wild angle — a camera on a crane wouldn’t have been able to get right behind the leaping stuntman, and doing that shot in a studio up against a greenscreen would have been wrong and obvious.

So what did the filmmakers do to get the shot?

They explain it in the DVD’s special features, and as I search around for more details, this clearly went out in the press kit for the DVD release — and maybe the theatrical release itself, as it’s in many ledes of many reviews, and in more technology-focused stories about Second Unit Director Dan Bradley and his stunt/chase work.

I’m still not clear on whether the camera crew was unable or unwilling to leap behind the Damon double, Arri 235 in hand, but the bottom line is that a second stuntman operated the camera for that shot, rigged up to a wire just like the Damon double.

Keeping in mind that I worked on union and non-union productions with no budget and with millions of dollars back in my day as a lighting and rigging technician on movies and television, here are some the questions the filmmakers obviously either answered or shrugged off on the day in Tangier when they had to get their shot, the climax of the foot chase/race:

  • Is the camera insured if the stunt guy operates it?
  • Is the stuntman insured if he’s operating a camera?
  • Does this break the rules of either the camera crew’s union or the stuntman’s union?
  • Is there a bond company stooge on set, and how long will it take to convince him or her that this is a good idea, covered by the production’s insurance?

The point is this:  The status quo, the expectations, the rules and regulations, the conventions did not get in the way of getting the shot and telling the story.  Yes, there are reasons for the rules, but there are often good reasons to break them, too.

So, look around your newsroom.  Is there a stuntman who can hold a camera?  Is there someone with innovative ideas willing to hook their harness up and leap into the void?  What if it’s not their job?  What if it’s not what the budget says they’re supposed to do?  What if you get the shot?  What if you don’t?  What does failure mean if you don’t try to do something new?

Hand the stuntman a camera.  Find out.

Cross-pollinate or shrivel

I’m profoundly enthralled by things like rapid news-driven development in Django, and building a CMS that can switch from a beautiful feature layout to a Drudge-like breaking news linkbomb on a dime, and of course, leveraging the steady stream of free embeddable tools showing up online every day for your own newsy purposes.

But none of those pieces of the puzzle I’ve become so interested in these days — on their own, at least — come close to connecting readers to each other, or to the news, or to a news brand in some sort of interesting way.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Learning from Design

The SND session I went to last week with the highest awesome quotient was clearly Stephanie Grace Lim‘s session on “finishers” — design moves that take an idea from fruition to execution in a series of short repeatable steps.

One of the many fun parts of her presentation pro wrestling exhibition was “The Pollinator,” a way to get into the habit of listing the possible ingredients in a graphic and connecting the dots to create eye-catching juxtapositions to tell your story.

That’s the sort of basic thinking that’s necessary to brainstorm our way into new story forms online.

For example, here’s a doodle I just came up with:

Cross-pollinate your stories and tools to experiment with new online story forms.

When the “interactive” tools at our disposal consisted of Flash, and “multimedia” was a way to organize text, stills, audio, and video in a button-pushing environment, there were plenty of ways to decide whether the one tool in our box could do the job.

So here’s what I’m proposing:  If you’re the online editor, or the interactive director, or the news developer, or the innovations editor, or the title of your choice, when you come across a story — whether it’s a noisy breaker or a long-term FOIA-rich piece that a reporter is putting weeks (months?) of their life into — stop for a minute and think about which tools to deploy in response.

Obvious enough, right?

Just keep in mind, you’re allowed to stray from the established norms (blotter = database, profile = slideshow) and cross-pollinate stories and tools to make something new.

Onward to stage two

I mentioned a problem earlier, wherein much of what I’ve become interested in lately is, essentially, one-way communication.

That’s yesterday’s news, if I can beat a dead horse cliché.

So, the next piece of cross-pollination I’m selling you today is this:  *Every* piece of content, or interface, or display that you create should be infected with two-way communication.

Simple method: Comments.  If you can’t build it, embed them with something like js-kit or Disqus.

More complicated, but still basic: User-contributed photos, video, stories.

Challenging goal: Tie each reader’s interaction with your online news product together with a social profile and opt-in tracker, allowing readers to gather their favorite stories, comments, photos, and yes, perhaps they’ll want to follow their friends as well.

There’s more to this, of course.  There’s embeddable video players and widgets and Facebook apps and Twitter as a conversational tool, but none of this really address the larger issue:  Organized media no longer has a monopoly on content creation.

So while we do our best to insert our own content into the diasporic spread of homebrew news and information, or to adopt the successful methods of social networking on our own sites, it remains likely that the tide has turned against organized news as a tenable business.

It’s time to cross-pollinate.

To become news development shops that sell tools as a product.  To let readers into the reporting process.  To build evergreen content with legs — to think in terms of permanent information stored online, rather than temporary news, flashing by as a headline on a page or a screen.

Read Ethan Zuckerman’s write-up of Persephone Miel’s Media Re:public presentation at the Berkman Center earlier this week.  That’s the thread that’s tying these two ideas together in my head. (Um, cross-pollinating, even.)

Persephone and I talked more than a little about the twisted relationship between the future of professional news organizations and the future of citizen media in Boston earlier this year.  She’s been studying the problem in great detail.  From Ethan’s excellent paraphrasing:

There’s a million things we can try. We can experiment with networked reporting, with new editorial structures, with partnerships between professional and amateurs.

But we probably won’t. Legacy media is focused on the bottom line. Journalists are becoming more like bloggers, but often in bad ways. Civic-minded projects (like mine, I’m guessing) ignore how people really consume media. Amateur investigative journalism isn’t easy, and crowdsourcing is really hard to do well. We’d hope that public broadcasters would lead us into the promised land, but they apparently live in their own world.

I’ll leave off today with this:  Think about what you, your newsroom, and your organization are doing to cross-pollinate.  To mix and match story forms, to invite the public into the news, and the news into the public, and to participate in figuring out the future of news by trying to build it yourself.

Now, back to work.

Dealing with the elephant: Build the software you need, then sell it.

This is the fourth post in a short series I’m pretty much done with about the business model for online news before I go back to my usual routine of pointing out the obvious to people wearing dark glasses.  The starting point, the givens in the equation, are listed here.  Suggest which windmill I should tilt at next using the Skribit widget in the sidebar of my blog while it’s still there.

elephant by droolcup on Flickr
“elephant” by droolcup on Flickr

There’s something funny about software for publishing online news.

Newspapers don’t develop it.

There’s an exception or two to that rule of course, but I hope I’ve force-fed you enough fine products at this point to hammer that exception home.  (I almost wish they had an affiliate program.)

But usually, instead of spending money to hire developers to build software to match the specifications of their own needs, newspapers and the companies that own them reach out the third-party vendors on a daily basis in order to provide basic functionality to online readers, consumers, and advertisers.

Follow along with me for a moment, substituting your own organization for the Royal We, in the parlance of our times:

  • Classifieds? Let someone else build it, sell it, and profit from it.  We won’t have much input into what they build for us, but we won’t need to worry about the servers or credit card processing.
  • Databases? If we know what to do with them, we certainly haven’t hired anyone who can build them with journalistic intent.  We outsource them, or we trust the one developer in the newsroom who knows what they’re doing to build a framework we can use more than once, or that we can use when they move on.
  • Calendars, content management systems, even project management tools? We seem to have been out sick from school on the day “vertical integration” was covered in AP Economics.

No, I wouldn’t recommend you drop everything you’re doing so you can re-invent the wheel, especially when some of those wheels are pretty darn good at filling your needs for a relatively small short-term price.

But yes, I heartily recommend you build an extensible Web application for the next unserved need in your organization.  Just pick any one of those that pops up in the next month or so, and go at it.

After you’ve launched it and earned the praise of your peers, slap a price tag on a license and get to work marketing it.

You’ve made a long-term investment by hiring developers.  The capital is coming back in the form of the application that’s useful to your organization; think of the license fees for the software as interest income.  You’ll be supporting the software for your own papers, anyway; might as well serve a few other organizations at the same time, for a price.

So ask yourself which software needs are going unmet in your own organization.  If you can’t find the right tool for the job, chances are, no one else can either.

A caveat: I’ve given out a lot of advice (some of it unsolicited) to newsrooms about using free, Web-based tools for online news production.  I still think that’s the right approach for many news-related purposes, but as soon as you find yourself paying for a mediocre service that’s part of your core business routine, it’s time to build something better.

Generation gap

So I’ve been reading this book my Dad sent me a few weeks ago.

It’s not that impressive so far (about 100 pages in).  The mentions in the title of MySpace and YouTube seem to have been tacked on in order to sell books, fittingly enough, and the authors make their political alignments clear from the start.

But what I am enjoying are the bits of theory about political re-alignment based on generational changes.

For example, generations are broken down into types:  Civic and Idealistic are two of them.

The Baby Boomers (read as: aging editors, j-school faculty, columnists, and older reporters) are an Idealistic generation, the book tells us.

The Millenials (read as: the young interns and fresh-faced multitaskers causing all sorts of ruckuses in your newsrooms with their blogging and whatnot) are a Civic generation.

The Idealists came of age in the 1960s.  They focus on morals – right and wrong, black and white.  That concentration of resources on debatable and subjective issues (like, say, objectivity) make for a slow moving government (or news organization).  Voters become disillusioned, participation drops, and authority figures are not looked upon kindly.

A Civic generation, on the other hand, like the current Millenials (born between around 1980 and 1994 or so, depending on which reference you consult) or the G.I. Generation, is more pragmatic.  They use new communication technologies to get things done.  They’re committed to political involvement, believe in the system, and participate in great numbers.

(An aside: I’m old enough to qualify for Generation X, the disconnected, disaffected grunge-listeners that fell in between these sexier re-alignment cycles.)

All this is just to say that I do believe age has something to do with innovation, especially when it comes to the news business.

I alluded to some persistent “generational frustration” the other day when I was declaring my independence from a generalization, and then the post wandered away from that notion a bit.

But I’ll say this: I’m excited to see where this Civic generation takes news.

It’s not going to be the same place that the previous generation took it.  This generation’s news will look more like the work of Holovaty and Sites than Woodward and Bernstein, because they’re simply not the same people.

The influences are different, the reasoning is different, the thought process and the toolset are different.  And so is the audience, if we can still call them that for a fleeting moment before the familiar models of storyteller and listener completely and finally break down.

Further reading:


Steve Yelvington, on the consequences of removing copy editors from the newspaper equation:

“The dirty little secret of newspaper journalists is that a lot of them can’t write very well. That’s by no means universally true, but it’s true enough.”

Zac Echola, on his vision of a distributed and loosely joined newsroom:

“The Internet is my platform. Not a Web site. Not twitter. Not mobile devices. The entire Internet.”

Declare your independence from the curmudgeon tribe

More than a year ago, I wrote a blog post aimed at the curmudgeons in your newsroom.

The ones who prefer hand-wringing editorials to reorganization plans.

The ones who prefer complaining about bloggers to starting a blog.

The ones who prefer whining about Google and craigslist and every other disruptive organization to becoming a disruptive organization.

Jay Rosen has been politely badgering me to update or extend that line of thinking, and although I did a quick one-year-later assessment of where most organizations stand on what I called 10 obvious things, there’s a good dose of generational frustration that’s always been involved in my thinking about newspapers.

Because I didn’t get into this business because I wanted to save the world, or right wrongs, or afflict the comfortable, although those are all laudable pursuits.

I got into this business because I wanted to fix journalism.

And I didn’t get into it that long ago, which means I don’t have the institutional inertia so many organizations are afflicted with.  And it is an affliction.

The status quo is killing newspapers.  Those who would defend it are the curmudgeon class.  But more than that, they are the tribe of Press that Prof. Rosen was talking about a week or two back.

The tribe of curmudgeons — dwindling in number — made their voice heard in the comment thread of a post written by an intern about layoffs and reorganization at a major metro daily newspaper.

The message of the meeting re: layoffs and reorg?
Hard times are here, but we have a plan.

The message of the intern’s blog post?
My boss has a plan, thank goodness, let’s get going.

The message of the curmudgeon tribe in the comment thread?
You naive kid, stick around this business long enough and you’ll be as stubborn and immobile as we are. You’ll never work in this town again.

It’s disgusting.

This is why I got into this business: Because it is broken.  I’d like to help fix it.  But the clock is ticking.

And I have no more time for the tribe of curmudgeons.

Don’t even try to get that story on A1

Pullquote from a bit of morning reading at the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog:

“I once consulted at a well-respected metro newspaper where several writers told me they tried to avoid pitching their stories for the front page because the ‘serial editing’ of these stories was such a hassle for them and damaging to their stories.”

That’s Michele McLellan writing about Rupert Murdoch’s claim that the average Wall Street Journal story passes across the desks of 8.3 editors.

How often have you heard from reporters who hold on to a solid story idea because they’re afraid their editors will “just ruin it” ?

8.3 is a big number, too many pairs of eyes for even the WSJ, but in many cases, I think even the three or four editors that a story at a small paper might run through are too many.  To be honest, sometimes one editor can get the job done — if it’s the right editor.

A note to my fellow graduate students: Agenda-setting is real, and it matters who edits a story last and who looks over the copy editor’s shoulder while they put together headlines, but inefficiency outweighs bias most of the time.

Unrelated bonus link:, a fun little database-powered Sunlight-type project that lets you guess  which political party a quotee belongs to.

Carnival folo

Some of the best posts I see coming out of this past weekend’s Carnival of Journalism are drifting into the blogosphere after the fact, as folks not on deadline analyze what we prattled on about for a few grafs each, who did the prattling, and how to muster up some real temporal freedom in newsrooms.

Doug Fisher, a contributor to the carnival, circles back around to take a closer look at the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina, a newsroom Jack Lail mentioned in his own carnival entry.

Anderson editor Don Kausler Jr. said this in Lail’s post:

“In our shrinking newsroom, we no longer have enough reporters to cover traditional beats such as government, education, business, health, etc. Now all of the reporters on our content staff are general assignment reporters. They are assigned to geographic regions, and they cover government, education, business, etc., in that region (or they wrangle content from freelancers).”

Fisher responds:

“I find myself wondering who is going to keep an eye out so that things that might be seemingly isolated or random among geographic areas don’t get overlooked as pointing to a larger pattern. This, it seems to be, puts additional pressure on the editors to see that 10,000-foot view. But even if they do, will the GA reporter thrown in to do the story have the time to develop the expertise.”

This is a hard one for understaffed newsrooms. When the shrinking-profit-margin layoff virus hit the paper I worked at in California, we cut both specialists and GA reporters working a geographic beat. They weren’t replaced, and the newsroom wasn’t re-organized to cover the losses.

And if a newsroom does give up its specialists and re-organize around geography, does it need to keep one body working on investigative, or enterprise, or education, or business — something where they can go in-depth and anchor the front page a few times a week?

Probably, but that one extra body doesn’t exist in most newsrooms.

“So perfectionism is a good place to hide: Everybody is always too busy to innovate.”

Which brings me back around to time.

My original question for the carnival bloggers was meant to find ways for newsrooms to take back some time from the print edition.

Print edition workflow is a huge timesink, as files get passed back and forth, budget lines are floated, edited, mulled over in meetings, questions are posed, and the actual process of writing gets jammed into a small space on deadline.

Michelle McLellan, writing at the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog, says it’s hard to let go of the newsroom culture of perfectionism:

“The research tells us that traditional print news organizations tend to reinforce perfectionism to a fault. People focus on details at the expense of big-picture thinking. Perfectionists are afraid to leave anything out, much less stop doing something. This is why stories get longer, workloads get heavier and to-do lists grow to discouraging proportions. These newsrooms also are risk-averse. So perfectionism is a good place to hide: Everybody is always too busy to innovate.”

McLellan goes on to list 10 steps to getting an individual journalist to adopt a new practice, whether it’s online or off — well worth a read, especially for those of us saddled with the task of actually talking to reporters and editors every day, trying to get them to pick up some new tricks — if they can find the time.