Cold Type

No slug is safe in today’s newsroom

Archive for May 2009

On the spot

with one comment

I have to admit that when I first heard about Spot.us, I was a tad skeptical and I guess, I still am, though I’m a lot more hopeful after reading a recent blog post by its founder, David Cohn, who gave an insightful report on the progress of his exploration of community funded journalism.

In his report, Cohn says the Bay area community and/or others with an interest have donated enough money to fund 23 journalists’ online pitches to do some investigative reporting. This may not sound like many stories to some but it is, considering the concept is a few months old and that some of the pitches I’ve seen are $500 or more. And this isn’t NPR, where the newscasters can get on their soapbox and drone on about how you can support your good reporting for the price of a frappucino a week. This is Cohn, giving his own pitch to whomever he will listen.

What’s equally impressive to me is the quality of reporting that’s so far been funded, digging into poverty, environmental problems, politics and even, ironically, the sorry state of the newspaper industry.

I’m also especially intrigued with the pitch by Pubic Press on Spot.us for a $5,000 pitch to fund not just one story, but a beat, albeit temporarily. Public Press is seeking funds to hire reporters to cover the shrinking San Francisco budget. It seems to me that such a model might be more successful over the long haul because it’s sustained coverage of a topic vs the one-hit wonder approach. Of course, it’s also more expensive, which could lead to a big lag in time between a pitch being made and then getting funded, something Cohn admits he’d wants to find a way to shorten.

That lag, I’m guessing, could be helped with a fat marketing campaign but would it be enough to give Spot.us the brand presence it needs to succeed long-term? I suppose that’s the $64,000 question: how much money and/or bootstrap effort and viral marketing would it take to give the crowdfunding model a fighting chance? Also, can it survive outside of the progressive-minded Bay area? I think so, but could it survive in, say, my hometown of Spokane, which is “a hotbed of social rest” (a phrase I recently heard on “A Prairie Home Companion”). I’d like to believe the concept could thrive anywhere but I guess that’s where my original skepticism comes in — how many people will regurlarly pitch in money to fund pitches? Only time will tell.

Cohn says two others have downloaded the open-source code they need to create their own version of Spot.us. I’m very curious to see where those end up and how they do, and I can’t wait to hear more on that a few months down the road. I’d love it if we found out that someone in Portland gave it a shot. Maybe this is something worth talking about at this summer’s Digital Journalism Bar Camp in Portland? (If only we could afford to fly Cohn up to talk.) Regardless, my hat’s off to Cohn and the Knight Foundation that gave him a News Challenge grant to explore the merits of community-funded journalism.

Advertisements

Written by coldtype

May 19, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ten years and counting

leave a comment »

That’s how long 65% of American adults believe newspapers will be in business, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Another 17% are giving us three years or less. Those numbers are skewed too by the older readers such as myself and my parents because if you only look at adults 18-29 a staggering 83% give newspapers 10 years or less. But hey, wait, 18% also say they think newspapers will be around forever.

I’m thinking 5 to 10 years for some but we’ll see smaller papers and very few delivered 7 days a week. What do you think?

Many pundits say that will depend on three things for newspapers: 1) how much debt they have on the books, 2) how many households they reach or how much market penetration they have, and 3) how well you manage your business, ie, how efficient you distribute print products and/or how well you balance your staff resources between print and digital products.

It’s no mystery that many newspapers and media chains are highly leveraged right now (I know, I work for one that’s filed for Chapter 11) and some may not survive that type of financial stress (at the risk of sounding too optimistic, I think The Columbian will but I can’t deny that I get nervous about the falling circulation and loss of half or more of our classified revenue).

Sadly, those newspapers that don’t survive from their big debtloads may just fold and leave gaping holes in news coverage in some communities, though I firmly believe something will fill in those voids whether it’s TV or online media. The bigger question is how good a job those entities will do at providing the quality journalism we typically get from newspapers, though certainly everyone has their opinion of their hometown rag and might beg to quarrel with me on that point.

In fact, Rasmussen reports that people are increasingly cynical about the reporting done by newspapers, especially The New York Times which has a 24% favorable opinion. The statistic that jumps out of me, though, is that 46% of adults under 40 rarely buy a paper these days. I’m not surprised by this because I know a lot of people who don’t get their daily paper and rarely buy one off the stands. “I read it online,” they say, “or I get my news from TV or NPR.”

They also often say that they can’t see ever taking a paper down the road. They don’t see the value in it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge of all for newspapers: how do we change the increasing perception that newspapers just aren’t worth $100-$200 or more a year for home delivery or even 4 bits at the newsstand?

Perhaps it’s not so much how we run our businesses, though that certainly helps, as it is how we respond to that challenge.

More and more I’m thinking to myself: It’s the content, stupid.

Written by coldtype

May 17, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s time for more conversations

leave a comment »

Today I participated in a live chat hosted by Oregonian business writer Mike Rogoway, who wrote an interesting piece recently on the startup culture in Portland, Ore. You can read the details of that chat in Mike’s blog (disclosure: Mike and I once worked together in The Columbian newsroom and enjoy an occasional beer together).

While I thoroughly enjoyed the chat and story and learned much from it, I have to say what impressed me most is that Mike hosted the chat in the first place. See, not every newspaper is good at having conversations with their readers, print or online, and some journalists shun the idea completely. Why?

Some might say it’s because they already have enough on their plates, especially now that many reporters must crank out more copy as staffs have dwindled nationwide. Others might say they don’t want to chat for fear they may something that could be construed as bias and taint the public’s view of them as fair and objective. And then still others will say they don’t have time to learn the technology required to conduct online chats, or that their news organization doesn’t have the online tools to pull it off (not likely, but they may lack the IT resources to help a non-techie writer get one set up).

I’m not sold that any of those is a worthy excuse. Not any more. Mike managed to pull it off with technical glitches and without appearing to take sides, though he did express some opinions. I think readers find that refreshing now. No one is buying — and likely never has bought — that journalists are completely objective, try as they may. So why pretend?

I think it’s time that more journalists jumped into the conversations that are happening in the communities they cover, and I applaud Mike for doing that today. I’m looking forward to the next chat already. It’s also fueling my desire to bootstrap my own startup.

Written by coldtype

May 6, 2009 at 1:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How hyper is your local?

with 4 comments

How hyper is your local? Love that. I can’t recall who said it, but some witty soul at PDX BarCamp III shared that in a lively discussion I cohosted with two coworkers (Web editor Jeff Bunch and Web developer Patti Hill, no relation) today at Cubespace. Our session: “You are publisher of a daily newspaper. How do you escape the carnage?”

Unfortunately, we didn’t walk away with any clear answers on how to avert disaster, something our newspaper is facing head on these days. We did, however, seem to agree that so-called hyperlocal journalism and advertising is likely to be the last idea standing after the shakeout that’s begun in the newspaper industry.

Still, big questions remain, including:

1) Can enough online revenue be generated from hyperlocal efforts to stem the outgoing tide of dollars from the print model? Doubtful, but I think there’s hope as I noted today with a conversation Jeff and I had with Michael Wood-Lewis, the founder of the Front Porch Forum (he told us advertisers approached him and were sold that his ad model worked far better than the print model).

2) If there isn’t enough online revenue to be had just yet and newsroom staffs continue to dwindle, can community bloggers provide enough content to supplement what’s created by so-called credentialed reporters?

3) How big of a revenue boost can a newspaper expect from engaging with its customers via social media efforts?

Many people in the audience seemed to agree that small newspapers and large national newspapers were performing the best in print, online or both and could weather the financial storms best. It’s the papers in between that seem to be losing money and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight just yet. Given that, there seemed to be consensus that, unless a new online revenue model suddenly appears, these papers are destined to dwindle in frequency and size until they become Sunday tabloids filled with the meatier investigative stories while they leave the breaking news to their Web sites.

Pretty sobering commentary for journalists and/or fans of good journalism.

I think one attendee, Jerry (@b3gl) perhaps summed it up best when he summised in a Tweet:”I’m far less interested in “how to save newspapers” than I am in “how to save good, regional journalism”. #bcp3″

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who indulged us with our attempt to have a conversation on this subject. We’re hopeful some answers can be found in the near future with other bar camps or events.

Written by coldtype

May 3, 2009 at 5:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized