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.
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.
A new report from the Knight Foundation finds that nonprofit news organizations are growing audience and diversifying their revenue — but many are still reliant on a small number of foundations to support their journalism.
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.
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: