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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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April 8, 2009, 6:31 a.m.

What was missing from Singleton’s AP speech?

I keep thinking about the missed opportunities of Dean Singleton’s speech earlier this week.

What if, instead of bluster and opaquely worded legal threats, Dean Singleton’s address had been a challenge to leverage the breadth and depth of the AP network and its member newsrooms to create something new and better, rather than merely a curse of the darkness? What would such a speech be like?

Some points I’d love to have seen him make:

We’re going to build something better than Google News. Nobody in the newspaper business is going to do a better job than Google when it comes to automation and search algorithms. But what the newspaper industry can do better than any cluster of computers in the world is to edit and curate news. Google News happened because there was a void and Sergey Brin’s robot army was ready and able to fill it. But imagine reclaiming the mantle of “AP News” as a signifier for quality, completeness and currency. Done right, APNews.com could be Google News with an important and irreplaceable overlay: human editorial judgment.

We will become the online home for curated links. If, as Jeff Jarvis and others argue, the link is the primary unit of online currency, who better to curate the best links for a given news story than a (virtual) roomful of reporters? This will require journalists and editors to stop thinking of themselves as the default “best” source of news information; daily newspapers are collections of generalists who parachute into stories as they happen while topic bloggers and micro-reporters live at ground level and, more often than not, have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the story. As Danny Sullivan said in an already-legendary rant two days ago, “I’ve published content on my topic (search engines) that I know has been of far superior quality than that published by many supposedly ‘quality’ publications. So for them to argue they were somehow ‘quality publications’ deserving special treatment was arrogant not to mention simply incorrect.” So link. Link copiously. Become a source of the best links for any given story or topic. Buy Mahalo.com or at least replicate its model of human-filtered search results for a more news-centric perspective.

We will create the best video news hub online. Yesterday, the web was atwitter with news from Brightcove that newspaper-associated video was on fire, spiking to almost 43 million streams in the first quarter, nearly triple the same period last year. That’s great, but to put it in perspective, in January, according to comScore, YouTube delivered more than 6 billion streams. Assuming Brightcove represents about 10% of all newspaper video streams (probably an underestimate, but I’m being safe as I don’t have the data), that means that YouTube is likely pushing at least 40 times the video that newspapers are. My point: there’s a lot of room for growth here, and AP and the newspapers of America can help to drive and organize that news video:

  • Make your video embeddable. Not exactly cutting-edge advice, but you’d think it was looking at many newspaper sites.
  • Create a credible, searchable hub for citizen news video. Pay for it when it’s good. Promote it on your sites and in your pages. Solicit it and create an easy means for creators to share it with you and others.
  • Stop producing videos. Post more news video. You get the difference? Online video is not television. Short, lightly edited pieces are better.
  • Make this a very mobile-friendly channel. Which brings us to…

We are building the most amazing news hub for smart phones. Google got to be as big as it is by creating awesome products that scratched an itch we didn’t know we had. Mobile is mere moments away from becoming extremely itchy. It’s still not too late for mobile, even though your online people have been trying to get you to focus on it since 2004 at least. But the perfect storm of high-quality phones and cheap, fast bandwidth is here. What is the AP doing to take the lead?

We have created a skunk works, a band of talented, empowered geniuses flying the pirate flag in an undisclosed location. Fund a group of the most frustrated and brilliant people in the newspaper business. You’ll find them in newsrooms across the land, pushing great ideas to market, but still feeling that there are even better ideas that never make it past the white board for any number of reasons. They all have stories of thwarted ideas and squashed dreams. But they’re still there, saving the business, one day at a time. Dangle some money and hire the best of them to join a very small team (no more than 10) on a two-year contract, with renewal options. Give the team a budget and some launch deadlines and allow them to build you some products. You don’t get to dictate those products. You don’t get approval. You just feed money to the process, and wait. If you’ve chosen your team well, in six months your investment will begin to reward you richly and in two years time, The AP will be on its way to being more than easy shorthand for “The Last Days of Newspaperdom.”

I’m not saying all of these are easily attainable, but until you aim, you can’t shoot. What other ideas did you think were missing from Singleton’s speech?

POSTED     April 8, 2009, 6:31 a.m.
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