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.

Modernize your newsroom today

Many employees at news organizations have a very easy time blaming out-of-date computers, front-end print publishing systems, and Web content management systems on such faceless, amorphous entities as “Corporate,” or perhaps “The Budget.”

Nevertheless, there are plenty of free or not-completely-expensive ways you can modernize your newsroom today.

Here are 5.

  1. Use Google Documents (or any one of many similar tools) to share notes and spreadsheets in your newsroom. This makes it far easier for you to move data between desks and access it from anywhere.
  2. Get every reporter and editor in your newsroom an IM account and ask them to stay on it throughout the day. If they’re in the office, this is how they should be sharing links to sources, documents, and references with each other. If they’re working from a laptop in the field, this is a dead simple way to stay in touch and keep each other updated on what they’re working on.
  3. Build an OPML file of local bloggers, news sources, and searches for your newspaper’s name. If your reporters and editors aren’t already using Google Reader, Bloglines, or another RSS reader, just import this file into a central Bloglines account and go around to all their computers bookmarking the “public” view of those feeds.
  4. Set up a Flickr account for your newsroom and make sure everyone knows how to upload to it. This is for more than just pictures that run in your paper or on your site, this is to post stuff from parties and conferences and events. Humanize your newsroom; make your readers feel like they can pick up the phone and call you.
  5. Get every reporter a cell phone or other mobile device with a built-in camera. OK, this one costs money, but if you’re serious about staying in business, you need to be able to publish the news as it happens, not hours or days later. A reporter with a cell phone camera can e-mail photos straight to the newsroom from the field, or when appropriate, straight to the Web. This can be an incremental investment. Buy two or three phones for reporters on cops, city, and general assignment beats at the start, then add more as necessary.

[This post is part of the January Carnival of Journalism, hosted graciously this month by Adrian Monck. Hit that link to see lots of great posts from the last two days.]

Five ways to innovate today

A colleague looking for a few new ways to integrate free Web services into his newsroom asked me to chip in with a list of five, so here they are. A note to student journalists: These are all free and easy ways to get something new and different online, and they probably serve a need you have right now in your newsroom.

Instant social networking for a niche in your community. Need a high school football site? A way to let readers weigh in on a controversial issue without allowing too much anonymity? A place for school clubs to run groups, slideshows, video, blogs and forums? Done. This thing is plug and play. Move around the modules as you please, and promote the crap out of it on your news site. For 5 bucks a month, use your own URL. For $20 a month, run your own ads.

Fun, inventive multimedia, with Zero Flash Knowledge required at the door. Heck, you don’t even need to know how to use an FTP program to get this to work. Play with images, audio, and video here, and embed the results on your own site. Check out this ScobleShow video of Richard Koci Hernandez from the San Jose Mercury News talking about using Vuvox.

One of many projects on the plate of the guy who pretty much invented RSS and blogging and podcasting as we know it. The basic premise is that you call a phone number and record a short message. A link to the resulting mp3 file gets posted to your Twitter stream. Keep in mind that your Twitter stream has an RSS feed, as well, which increases the number of games you can play on the tail end of this. Think of it as live audio reporting that gets fed straight to the Web.

The latest in a short line of live video streaming startups. Also consider If you’re reporting with a laptop in your backpack hooked up to a webcam (or a more expensive miniDV camera, whatever floats your A/V boat), this is a way to broadcast live via the Web, whether you hook into wifi at the coffee shop or an EVDO card to get online.

YouTube? What? How many different remixes of Soulja Boy can I watch involving Spongebob and/or kittens? Or, you could use your free video editing software (iMovie, Windows Movie Maker) to create video content (ahem), podcasts, or audio slideshows. No FTP access or Soundslides license? No problem: Edit your images and audio in iMovie and export it as a video file. Upload to YouTube, embed on your site, and voila, audio slideshow. Podcasting? Why not do the same trick with a few relevant photos over an audio track?

Take advantage of the free software and services that are out there: None of these will create compelling content for you or teach you how to be a better storyteller. What they will do is make it easy for you to deliver those stories to your audience in compelling and interactive ways.