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March 24, 2014, 11:32 a.m.
LINK: www.wweek.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 24, 2014

In the Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week, Aaron Mesh has word of a new evaluation system for journalists at The Oregonian — one of Advance Publications’ daily newspapers that have been rendered less than daily in print.

Internal documents obtained by WW show that a quota system is being put in place that calls for steep increases in posting to Oregonlive.com, and promises compensation for those employees who post most often.

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com.

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.

In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

David Carr has a column tied to the same information and riffing on the general idea of tying compensation to metrics.

Mesh called me a few days ago to ask what I thought of this arrangement, and I think it’s fair to say I’m less outraged by it than a lot of people:

“Advance, for better or for worse, has been the most aggressive American newspaper company in moving to the web,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “This is their bet. It makes sense that they would want to align their staff with that bet.”

Here’s what I mean. Advance has decided the way forward for newspapers is to get to a digital orientation as quickly as possible. Remaining tethered to print means that reader behaviors won’t change fast enough, ad sales behaviors won’t change fast enough, and editorial behaviors won’t change fast enough. Keeping the focus on print may well mean more revenue in the short term, but it delays the changes that’ll be necessary for the long term, since no one thinks print is going to make a stunning comeback anytime soon. So Advance has chosen radical action: stopping daily printing and/or daily home delivery at its papers, laying off a big chunk of their newsrooms, and demanding a shift to shorter online content and audience engagement.

That’s their bet. It may be a good bet or a bad bet. I tend to side with Ken Doctor when he argues the print losses end up being greater than the digital gains. And it’s a strategy that relies on the assumption that you’ll have the remaining print market to yourself — which is what makes the incursion of Baton Rouge’s Advocate into New Orleans so threatening.

But it’s their bet. And even though there are parts of it I don’t like — and even though there are good questions about whether these metrics and these standards are the right ones — I for one am happy to see newspaper companies making big bets. Because even if some (most!) of them are wrong, we know that continuing down the road the industry’s been on the past decade — cuts every year, smaller papers, weaker but still traditional journalism, neverending advertising decline, constantly aging audience — leads nowhere. That really can’t be emphasized enough: Other than what’s looking like a one-time bump from paywall revenue, the basic narrative of metro newspaper revenues has been virtually unchanged for years.

So we need big bets. And if we’re going to have big bets, we should have staff and incentive structures that line up with that bet.

Look at a paper making a different bet, The Globe and Mail. Canada’s national newspaper is betting that a paywall will be a big part of its financial future. So how is it aligning its staff resources? It’s tying compensation for some employees to paywall performance — how successful a given section’s articles were in converting readers to subscribers. A very different bet, but a similar alignment of incentives and goals.

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LINK: shorensteincenter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 15, 2015

Our old friend (and former Nieman Fellow) David Skok got a nice promotion at The Boston Globe yesterday, being bumped up from digital advisor to the editor to both managing editor for digital and general manager of BostonGlobe.com. He also spent part of the day here on campus, giving a talk at the Shorenstein Center on his work there.

A few highlights:

The challenge is, on the Internet, I can write the best lede or nutgraf for a story in the world, but if you can’t read it on your phone within 0.1 seconds, it’s irrelevant, it’s invisible, and it doesn’t exist. If you’re going to be a digital product-driven organization, the user experience has to be the first and foremost [priority].

As newspapers were disrupted by Craigslist and other things, yes, there were technological reasons for why this happened. But it would be incredibly naive and arrogant of us as legacy publishers to suggest that we weren’t also responsible for our own demise, in our structures, in our cultures, in our processes that we have in our newsrooms.

There’s a great need to have a content management system that allows for the flexibility that reporters need and want to do their jobs. Whether it’s improving the content management system, getting better analytics…improving the resources that we give our people ultimately will help us as well.

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LINK: cmsw.mit.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   April 14, 2015

Where does the culture of the Internet come from? One important origin point, according to Kevin Driscoll: the mid-1970s standardization of phone jacks.

While the core technology behind today’s Internet was developed through the U.S. government-backed ARPANET, the things that define the culture of today’s Internet — sharing information, connecting with new people, playing games, even shopping — developed more through the bulletin board systems that proliferated before the advent of the World Wide Web. As Driscoll, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research, argued in a talk he gave at MIT last week:

We can think of this as a parallel world. There are parallel tracks here where the ARPANET is developing really robust ways of doing Internet working over a long distance with various types of media. Sometimes it goes over the wires, sometimes it goes over the airwaves, sometimes it goes through a satellite.

At the same time, there are hobbyists who are using just the telephone network that had been in place for decades — but they’re developing all this social technology on top of it. Figuring out how you should moderate the system, administer it. Who’s in charge? Who makes the rules? What are good rules? What are bad rules? How do you kick people off if they’re being a jerk? How do you get cool people to join you? All of this is happening on this “people’s Internet” layer.

According to Driscoll, the deregulation of the phone industry and the standardization of phone jacks allowed individuals to hook up things like fax machines and modems to the phone network and use it to communicate in new ways. Similarly, the popularity of CB radio in the 1970s helped introduce the concepts of communicating semi-anonymously over long distances — so as technology advanced, many avid CB radio users migrated to BBS.

The barriers to entry to BBS were relatively low. Computers were becoming more affordable, and it wasn’t too difficult to hook them up to the phone line, where you could find conversations relevant to your interests and, in many cases, safe spaces where you could discuss sensitive information that you couldn’t discuss elsewhere:

This was extremely important to communities who were using these systems and were otherwise facing oppression, or were marginalized, or their communication was being suppressed in other systematic sorts of ways. The Gay and Lesbian BBS list, which was compiled and circulated monthly, was organized by area code, so you can easily find and locate a system that’s near to you. You could think of lots of reasons why a system that is geared toward gay and lesbian users in the 1980s, it would be helpful to know if a system was nearby. Not only is it cheaper to call — you have an economic reason to do it — but there’s a chance that those people are dealing with conditions that are unique to that region.

And though bulletin boards eventually faded, those conversations and online social norms were carried elsewhere on the Internet. Even as the Internet continues to spread globally and splinter into countless messaging apps, social networks, and more, the DNA of those early bulletin boards lives on in today’s connected world.

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LINK: shorensteincenter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   April 6, 2015

The plight of the local American newspaper is well known at this point: Circulation is shrinking, print ad revenue is shrinking, and papers haven’t been able to make up the difference digitally.

But in a new paper released last week, Shorenstein Center fellow Matthew Hindman, an associate professor at George Washington University, says newspapers are far worse off digitally than most people think.

News sites attract about 3 percent of all web traffic, Hindman writes, and about 85 percent of that traffic goes to national news sites. That leaves local news organizations with about 15 percent of online news attention, or about half a percent of overall web traffic. And that terrain is further split among local papers, TV and radio stations. The average local newspaper only gets 5 minutes per month per web user, Hindman writes: “Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger Web.”

The bottom line is that any successful strategy for digital local news requires sites to grow their audience. This is obviously true for sites relying on ad revenue — though local newspaper sites cannot expect the same level of ad revenue per person that larger websites earn. Audience growth is just as essential for plans that rely on selling subscriptions. The current core audience of local news sites is too small to provide digital sustainability. Visitors who spend just a few minutes a month on a site are not good subscriber prospects. Even nonprofit journalism efforts need to demonstrate that their work is reaching a broad audience in order to ensure continued funding.

In order to grow their audiences, Hindman says local newspapers must answer two related questions: How can they make news “stickier” compared to all the other content on the web? And how can local news sites attract some of the audience that currently only reads national news sites?

Hindman offers a number of possible solutions. His top priority: improving the technical experience of local news sites, speeding up load times and making them work well on mobile devices. He also recommends improving content recommendation systems and simply producing more content to populate their websites. Additionally, he suggests local news sites do more A/B testing, optimize content for social media, and produce more videos and multimedia.

All of these suggestions, of course, cost money and resources; Hindman acknowledges that “for newspapers money is exactly the issue, and everything-at-once is not a viable strategy.”

Newspapers need to think marginally, to identify the changes that provide the most stickiness for the least additional cost. Some strategies are so important that they should be implemented immediately. For any editors reading this: If your site is slow, you are bleeding traffic day after day after day. If your site does not work seamlessly on mobile or tablet devices, drop everything and fix it. If your homepage does not have at least some visible new content every hour, you are throwing away traffic. Fix
these problems first.

If you’d like more details on Hindman’s specific suggestions, here is a link to the full report.

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LINK: www.indystar.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 31, 2015

Indiana’s passed a bill that many say allows state-sanctioned discrimination by businesses against gays and lesbians, and it’s led to a huge backlash. The state’s dominant paper, The Indianapolis Star wanted to take a strong stand on the matter, so it pulled out perhaps the biggest weapon a newspaper has — a front-page editorial:

The move worked, getting the Star’s position a huge amount of attention — many times more than a standard editorial would have. (I must have seen that image of today’s front page at least 30 times in my Twitter stream last night; the editorial has been shared on Facebook more than 18,000 times.)

If you’re going to do a blowout presentation in print, you’d want to do the same online, right? After all, a huge part of the discussion around the subject is happening far outside the Star’s print circulation area. Not really:

The blow-out print presentation got slotted into a standard Gannett-made template. That included a hard-to-read headline on mobile, with Gannett-standard cluttered presentation and location-seeking modal:

As the @MayorEmanuel-creating Dan Sinker put it:

The followup discussion to that tweet includes some back and forth about some flexibility in the Gannett CMS that the Star apparently didn’t take advantage of.

Still, it’s remarkable that, in 2015, a story that got so much thought and attention for print apparently didn’t get much for online.

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LINK: nieman.harvard.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 25, 2015

I’m very happy to pass along a bit of Nieman news: The Knight Foundation has awarded a grant of $223,000 to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard (of which this website is a part) to support the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowships, which bring journalists, technologists, academics and other news innovators to campus to work on projects that can advance the field. Here’s a brief piece by Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski outlining the thinking behind the program.

(If you’re a regular Nieman Lab reader, you may remember Jack Riley’s piece earlier this month that looked in depth at the potential of the Apple Watch and other smartwatches for news. Jack did that research and wrote that piece during his time as a visiting fellow in February. The same is true of Amy Webb’s piece on rethinking journalism education in the new issue of Nieman Reports.)

This funding will support a minimum of five Knight Visiting Nieman Fellows a year, who will work on their projects here for terms no longer than 12 weeks. If you’ve got an idea for a project, I’d encourage you to apply — applications for the next cycle will open up this summer.

The full press release is below. Knight has also been a funder of other projects here, including Nieman Lab, which is why you see our regular disclosure noting the funding relationship whenever we write about Knight’s activities, which touch many, many corners of the journalism innovation world.

Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowships: New program at Harvard University will advance journalism innovation

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — March 25, 2015 — To help news innovators advance quality journalism by incorporating new practices and technology into their work, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced $223,000 in support to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard for a new program, the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowships.

The program will bring journalists, technologists, academics and other news innovators to Harvard to develop projects to advance journalism. Each year, Nieman will select a minimum of five fellows. Lessons learned from the projects, developed during short, intense stays lasting no longer than 12 weeks, will be widely shared.

The visiting fellowships were first introduced as an experiment in 2012. With Knight support they are now an integral part of the Nieman program. Visiting fellows will work with traditional Nieman Fellows, who spend a full academic year at Harvard. They also have access to the extensive intellectual resources at Harvard and MIT, and throughout Cambridge, including local scholars, research centers and libraries.

“In the short time we have been working with visiting fellows, the impact on their work and ours has been significant. Over time, we expect this program to help journalism and journalists in increasingly important ways,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation.

“Journalism is so challenged in the digital age, it will take many great minds — including creative people from other fields — to help lead quality journalism to its best possible future,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation. “Congratulations to Nieman for building innovation into the nation’s oldest and most distinguished journalism program.”

Visiting fellows come from the United States and abroad to work on research, programming, design, financial strategies and other projects. Eligible candidates include journalists, publishers, programmers, designers, developers, media analysts, academics and others with an idea to enhance quality, build new tools or business models or design programs to improve journalism.

Past participants include:

— Paul Salopek, Nieman’s inaugural visiting fellow, who used his time at Harvard to plan his epic seven-year Out of Eden reporting walk around the globe to trace the path of human migration and use storytelling and technology to test a new form of “slow journalism.”

— Hong Qu, chief technology officer for Fusion, who developed his Keepr application to help journalists and other users better follow stories on Twitter and sort fact from rumor. Keepr was put to the test in April 2013 during the Boston Marathon bombings when Hong used his algorithm to identify reliable information as events unfolded.

— David Smydra from Google News, who formed a small working group with Nieman Fellows for feedback as he developed a structured data format for future news events.

— Allissa Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism at Bowie State University in Maryland, who developed a mobile journalism massive open online course (MOOC) on how to report news using only tablets, MP3 players or smartphones.

— Jack Riley, the London-based head of audience development for The Huffington Post UK, who researched the future impact of smartwatches and wearable devices on journalism.

Support for the fellowships program is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to encourage change in journalism education and advance excellence in journalism. In addition to previous support to the Nieman Journalism Lab, Knight’s many investments include: the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education and the Knight-Vice Innovators Fund, and recent grants to Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, City University of New York, Florida International University, Stanford University and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

About the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,400 accomplished and promising journalists from 93 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a quarterly print and online magazine that covers thought leadership in journalism; the Nieman Journalism Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling. Learn more at nieman.harvard.edu.

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