Posted on October 17th, 2007 No comments
I’ve been experimenting with various tools I discovered at the Networked Journalism Summit, and this one is pretty amazing. It’s called Mogulus, and once it’s out of beta it will let anyone with a broadband connection (including a cellular “air card”) broadcast live video interviews and footage from wherever they happen to be. And for those times that there’s nothing interesting to talk about, you can queue up any YouTube video.
Don’t believe me? Check out my newly created Dancam channel. Right now it’s showing footage from Bakotopia.com and some of my own videos. Occasionally I also break into a live broadcast — but not that often, as I have no idea what to say. Yeah, it’s not all about technology. Content is still king for broadcast.
I know that the idea of me broadcasting sounds about as interesting as hearing Pat Boone rap (to quote Rob Curley). But the important thing is that now anyone can truly compete with broadcast news, reality TV, you name it. It’s live video for the masses. Get ready for Wayne’s World times a million!
Thanks to Rachel Sterne from Groundreport.com for pointing out this amazing site.
Posted on October 15th, 2007 No comments
Since my blog is read by more than just the news digerati and increasingly by small “mainstream” independent newspapers, here’s some background on what the heck crowdsourcing is. (If you already know just skip half way down in this entry).
So you know that crazy “citizen journalism” thing we’ve been doing in Bakersfield, where average people are invited to write their own stories about their community that get printed and distributed to their neighbors? And that wacky “social networking” stuff that encourages anyone to blog and share their deepest secrets with each other on our web sites, including our main newspaper site, without any editorial oversight? Apologies for repeating myself, but in this case I’m speaking to the nice old editor I met at the Georgia Associated Press conference who picked up a print edition of The Northwest Voice and declared a cheerleader’s story and photos about her summer cheer leading camp experience “crap that isn’t anything new” (to which I responded, “that crap was written by some mother’s daughter, and she’s probably proudly displaying it her refrigerator and sending it to everyone she knows, unlike most of what you’ve written in your long career.” No, I didn’t actually say that last bit but I sure did think it.)
Crowdsourcing takes this all up about 100 notches by not just encouraging participation, but focusing a group of volunteer contributors on a specific research / reporting topic. Just a few examples:
- The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla. uploaded public documents related to a proposed sewer expansion and invited hundreds of local experts such as accountants, lawyers and engineers to scour them and help identify relevant trends and facts that should be further investigated. Their work was folded back into the resulting news stories.
- More recently, the News-Press sued FEMA for information about how it provided aid to people affected by hurricane Katrina. They posted it in a database on the site, asked the public to search for information on their houses and friends’ homes, and picked up leads that they further investigated and reported on. This worked because many of the people in “the crowd” who helped out had been trying to get this information themselves, but weren’t having any luck. They had a stake in the outcome of the story because they were part of it.
- Another is Jay Rosen’s Assignment Zero, which in conjunction with Wired Magazine invited a network of volunteers to conduct 80 interviews of people related to a trend story, including our Mary Lou Fulton (in this case the trend was crowdsourcing itself, which is a little ironic but certainly a valid story). You can read Rosen’s initial thoughts and learnings about the project on his blog.
- And my favorite, simply because the barriers to entry are so low and the information is so relevant to everyone, is WNYC public radio’s feature on price gouging. They invited people to go to their local grocery store and check the price of a gallon of non-organic milk and a six-pack of Budweiser beer and post the results online. The radio station then plotted the results on a Google map.
This idea of letting anyone not only contribute, but also research and report, is a radical new idea that borrows from the open-source software movement. In the information space it’s probably best exemplified by Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, but anyone can also edit or “roll back” changes on to prevent abuse and bias from self-interested parties. One big difference when this idea is applies to journalism is that the content is much more focused and subject to all the time constraints in a business that is focused on the here and now.
This concept is either the old newspaper editor’s worse nightmare, or her salvation. I happen to consider it a next logical step in journalism, because it allows stories to be investigated and told that may never have seen the light of day, especially as mainstream news organizations cut their reporting staffs (although that is definitely not the reason to look into crowdsourcing).
And to dispel any protectionist reactions, it doesn’t do away with the role of the editor. If anything, it expands it to being more about managing and inspiring a group of people who are
getting nothing more than “psychic income” at best for their efforts. Jay Rosen said as much in his report on Assignment Zero, noting the importance of starting with the right people who have the right motivations, and the “sudden coordination costs” that come from identifying what needs to be researched when and by whom, and folding their material back into one cohesive story.
Another knee-jerk reaction in traditional newsrooms is that a crowd comes with a myriad of opinions, sometimes not socially acceptable, and that the newspaper has an obligation to limit that. Jennifer Carroll, VP of Content for Gannett, put a fork in that idea during her panel. She said,
We say “Bring on the debate.” We say, “conversation is messy, welcome the noise.” From what we hear, our credibitliy is measured by the multipolicity of viewpoints. At the same time, we’re never backing away from the journalism side. We’re just looking to have a much more open sense of what the dialogue needs to be.”
We haven’t done anything that could be considered crowdsourcing in Bakersfield yet (one possible exception is our collaborative maps), although as always there are some ideas out there. So all I can offer to this discussion is what I have learned again and again in my career. It all comes down to community.
One thing Jay Rosen said that I thought really rang true was that you’ll do better off by getting an existing community to report on a topic — preferably one that has some shared connection to the topic that you’re investigating — than if you just invite anyone in to contribute. This is more true for the Big Investigative Story than for the average pothole map.
This is similar to what we’ve learned about participatory media in general. In Bakersfield, the second most popular social networking / participatory news site we have is Tehachapi News because it’s focused on a mountain town of 10,000. It gets slightly more traffic than Bakotopia.com. I suspect that’s because we provided a community watering hole to a community that existed already. We tapped into behavior that already existed and just made it easier and more convenient for these people to do what they were already doing. (Bakotopia still gets a lot of traffic, and it did reach out to an existing community of musicians and downtown-focused people, but its existing community wasn’t quite as big as Tehachapi’s).
Jennifer Carroll said much the same, and cited the early success they’re seeing at the Des Moines Register with an ongoing s
tory about biofuels. They reached out to people in the biofuels industry and invited them to blog about the topic. She said the biofuels area is quickly becoming one of the most authoritative sources on biofuels.
And that gets me to the big missing element I see in many of the crowdsourcing experiments out there. In my opinion, most are missing a key ingredient: a robust online community where people can not only share information, but express themselves and share with each other.
One of the most important features on all of our participatory sites in Bakersfield is the user profiles. If you go to any of our sites, you’ll see that peoples’ smiling faces are prominently featured under the heading, “Meet Your Neighbors”. On Bakotopia the persona functionality is right at the top, while on Northwest Voice and Tehachapi it’s off to the side, but it’s always there. Related to this, whenever anyone posts anything, their user profile and photo show up right next to the headline. And everyone’s profile can be found through site search, right along with news content and blogs.
People come to our sites not just get published in print, but to get validation from each other. And some never publish a single thing, but update their profiles regularly and post a comment on someone else’s content every so often. I think this shows that you can’t divorce crowdsourcing from the crowd, or “networked journalism” from a network. Some journalists tend to think of social networking as somehow less important than Journalism with a capital J, but I say what people cover and the people themselves are intertwined. By having social networking tied into a user-contributed content experience, you have the broadcaster(s) and audience all in the same room.
I think Jay Rosen is onto this too, because he hinted that future Assignment Zero projects may seek to engage an “existing social network” around a story of interest to that network. If I can make a suggestion, Facebook groups would be the perfect platform for that, perhaps through a new Facebook application that lets groups collaborate through wiki-like editing tools. But whatever comes of Assignment One or Two or Three, it will be worth watching. Kudos to Rosen for being so open about his successes and failures.
Posted on October 14th, 2007 No comments
My friend and former colleague Sam Ro shared this interesting chart showing AOL’s layoffs going back to 1996. Or maybe I should call it a morbidly interesting chart. In truth, it’s really disgusting and it brings back all kinds of bad feelings at a time when many people in AOL’s Dulles headquarters are expecting another round of layoffs in the wake of the decision to move its headquarters to New York.
It’s hard for those of us who worked at AOL in its glory days to explain how we feel seeing everything we built unravel, and all for reasons that had nothing to do with the value of the product. I could go on and on about some of the great pioneering initiatives at AOL, such as first mass-market instant messaging service, first mass-market dialup internet service (without which broadband could never have been justified), and in my humble opinion, first true mass-market community and social network — even if it consisted mostly of pieces that could have been tied together to be what MySpace and Facebook are today, but unfortunately weren’t.
Without revealing anything proprietary, I can tell you that many of the online services and features we all commonly use today were either first attempted, popularized or conceived at AOL or an AOL property like Netscape, CompuServe or ICQ. And if they didn’t happen there first, they were proposed by not one but several smart people who, despite their best efforts, could not get enough organizational support to move the rock up the bureaucratic mountain.
Things changed quickly though. A little over a year ago, thanks to the more rapid than expected shift from dialup packaged service to “bring your own access” broadband, AOL was forced to reckon with the inevitable by basically giving up its dialup service and making most of its content and services available for free on AOL.com to anyone with an AIM user name. The efforts of many people, including some of my own, made it possible for AOL to offer many services for free over the Web in a moment’s notice (a few examples: AOL Hometown, Journals (Blogs), You’ve Got Pictures, E-mail and AIM). The hope was that the growth of online advertising would replace those dial-up revenues. But replacing the revenues from tens of millions of people who pay a monthly fee with advertising isn’t something that can happen overnight.
So why am I even writing this, let alone on a blog that is normally about online newspapers and citizen / networked journalism? Because in that chart, I see a warning for other companies — in particular, mainstream media companies.
Mainstream media and AOL have a lot in common because both are, to use an intentionally disturbing analogy, “hooked on the crack” of a monolithic subscription business model that can’t scale for the future. And despite many noble efforts to break the addiction, it’s not something that can happen in a flash.
The problem with that is that sometimes changes in consumer behavior force transitions to happen too quickly for mainstream companies to react as gradually as they’re designed for. So first they panic by laying people off to trim operations, and if that doesn’t work they often end up laying off even more people just to pay the bills. And sometimes they go out of business, or are sold to the highest bidder. Newspaper companies have seen examples of all of the above in the last couple years.
Of course, this is exactly counter-intuitive to what they should be doing, which is to focus even more on where they need to be so that they don’t have to fire people to begin with. But tell this to countless CEOs who ultimately can’t control what individuals do day to day, other than hire and fire. When pushed into a corner what are their choices?
My hope is to provide enough warning and inspiration to leaders in the media industry to start laying the framework for radical change today so that when they face the kind of “tipping point” you see now at places like AOL (ironically, a company that was once seen as the poster child for the future), they’re able to gracefully switch to new models. Based on what we see in the newspaper industry, that could be 3-5 years away, and possibly even less.
I have no idea how many people will be let go from AOL in the coming weeks, but I have a sinking feeling that it will be one of the biggest cuts ever (and I hope I’m wrong).
There is another warning in that chart, and it has to do with morale. For reasons many of us never understood, AOL made regular layoffs a part of its culture, in both good times and bad. There were equally large firings in 1998 and 1999, with one of the biggest and most wrenching happening after AOL’s acquisition of Netscape. Remember that the Internet “dot bomb” didn’t start to happen until the middle of 2000.
I recall talking to some unnamed executives about this, and their explanation is disturbing to this day. They were happy to have regular layoffs even in good times, because they saw it as a form of social Darwinism that would weed out the weak and make room for younger, stronger, smarter employees. They liked having an excuse to get rid of troublesome people, especially what they called the “rest and vest” crowd (people who did nothing until their stock options vested).
I sort of understood this, but it never made sense to me how a company of 10,000 at the time could justify departing with 200-800 people so easily and feel like it was a good thing to be proud of. It grated on me and many others, and made us all paranoid. And just for the record, I was never laid off, and the people I most respected weren’t either. We all left of our own volition, partly because the layoff culture made us stop believing in the company. The idea that someone up above could so callously part with any of us in the interests of a twisted Darwinist ideal affected our morale in a serious way.
If you work at a mainstream media company today, consider it your solemn obligation to do everything within your power to help your CEO not get pushed into that corner. And if you’re a CEO, do everything you can to support the people who can move you into the future. And please, above all, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can cut your way to success. Not only does it not work (look at that chart — it doesn’t lie!), but it destroys the confidence of the people who you most need to inspire at this time.
10/15 Update …
Latest reports call for 2,000 layoffs, with 750 of those in the Washington, D.C. area. That’s 1/5 of AOL’s remaining work force. So it’s not the biggest ever (that would be 5,000 last December), but it is among the biggest at headquarters.
aol, newspaper industry
Posted on October 13th, 2007 No comments
I was fortunate to participate in the Networked Journalism Summit in New York City this year. The premise of the conference, as iterated by organizer Jeff Jarvis, was “more action than talk” to outline next steps to make even more use of “pro-am” journalists (read: bloggers, people who contribute to sites like The Northwest Voice).
The conference was only one day, so truthfully it’s pretty hard to get everyone to commit to next steps in such a short period of time (especially the jet-lagged ones). I did collect a zillion business cards though and had some very interesting discussions, and I do believe that some very concrete next steps will emerge. The first step for that next step is for everyone involved in this area to more openly share information with each other, which I started to do with some people who are in this space and pledge to do more of in the future. It’s not all about personal PR, folks!
There are two people who really stood out to me, though. I suggest watching what they do next, because I think they’re both onto something powerful.
First, there’s Martin Huber from a German outfit named Myheimat.de (loosely translated to “My Town” but I’m sure I’m slaughtering that as I don’t speak German). You can read his writeup here. The short version is that he’s built a system in Germany that automatically creates print publications based on user-contributed content.
Since 2003, his company gogolmedien has gotten 5,000 German contributors to write stories for 18 locally-focused publications that are distributed as what they call “freesheets” in their cities. There are 1,800 such small cities with less than 10,000 residents in Germany, and their objective is ultimately to get it’s citizens to cover their own communities.
But what is new is something I’ve always hoped someone would do. Myheimat print publications are created automatically based on users’ content ratings. The highest rated content automatically flows into prefab templates which an editor can view in a PDF, then edit in Adobe InDesign to make just right. If an editor is really busy, he or she can just choose to automatically print the PDF without review. Is this heretical to traditional editors? Well, yes, but … to potentially cover an entire country like Germany with printed user-contributed content in a way that’s profitable, you almost have to do something like that. And in my opinion, we lower the bar on quality a little with user contributed content anyway, so it just makes sense to do the same with printed material. I’m sure there are some legal concerns to work out, but as I’ve learned in my career, where there is a will there is a way. They’ve done it in Germany.
Second, I found myself captivated by Rachel Sterne, who has a relatively new site called Groundreport.com. The concept of the site is also not new — she has 1,000 citizen contributors around the world reporting on international issues (a focus that came out of her experience reporting on the United Nations Security Council and events taking place in Darfur) — but her ideas and passion for democratizing media are refreshing in a “new” field that is sadly becoming more rote and cookie-cutter by the day.
What’s great about Rachel is her knack at matching needs with possibilities. When Rachel was reporting on the U.N. she was also working for file-sharing service Limewire. She felt that she had so much access to information and people at the U.N., and she could see that there were global events that people in the U.N. should pay more attention to. Unfortunately nobody was adequately covering these beats, which was partly the fault of the editors and of the subjects they covered. She realized that the tools that allow regular people to report on important events existed. So she got some funding and hobbled Groundreport together.
Groundreport seeks to democratize news in several ways. From the Netj writeup:
1. GroundReport allows everyone to participate by posting articles, videos or livestreaming content.
2. The community decides what is on the front page through voting – there is no editorial control.
3. GroundReport shares revenue with all contributors based on traffic to their stories.
So again, we see this concept of loosening — or in this case removing — editorial control (citizen editing?) and giving profits back to the contributors/editors. Taking myself out of my newspaper shoes, I love this idea of giving total control over to the citizens in certain situations. It doesn’t have to happen in every case, but there is a place for it in everything we do. Letting people vote stories to appear higher and lower on a page is just another way for people to share their voice and take ownership of news.
The other thing I loved about Rachel is that she didn’t just stop with what was in her technology platform. At Limewire she saw how easy it is to stream video if you have a Webcam, so she worked out an arrangement with a site called Mogulus that does just that — for free! A prominent “Watch TV” tab at the top of Groundreport brings up streaming video of whatever Rachel has recorded most recently from her laptop. She said she hopes to eventually let any of Groundreport’s contributors publicize their own channels and aggregate these together on the TV tab.
In case you’re wondering, Mogulus is in beta right now and you have to be approved to use it, but they plan to open it up to anyone in the future when their tools are just right. If you’re interested in doing something like Rachael has done, just ask her — or ask me and I’ll pass your info on to her. Once you have a channel you simply embed it on your page, and the Mogulus tools do the rest.
Rachel says her next step will be to let anyone in any city create their own “publication”, although they’ll be entirely online. If you ask me, the combination of Rachel Sterne’s ideas around instant geographically-focused citizen news sites and Martin Huber’s instant print products would be the ultimate in citizen media. That’s what’s great about these kinds of conferences. You see how people in different parts of the world are solving the same problems, sometimes the same way and sometimes in different ways. If we can all just share a little more and try to control a little less (not just in terms of what we let the “citizens” do, but how we limit each other for fear of competition), I think we’ll be better off. People in small communities certainly will.
Posted on October 12th, 2007 No comments
A company called Compete Inc. just published these very interesting stats about how people use Facebook. Just in case you’ve been living in a cave, Facebook is the semi-private membership-based social network that started on colleges, but is now open to anyone.
There’s a great graph showing how much of a typical person’s time is spent browsing profiles, “poking”, looking at photos, joining groups, etc.
Of note, they claim:
- 14 milion people used Facebook’s third-party applications in August.
- 16 million people browsed photos in August, with the average person viewing 150 per month.
- “Poking” was only engaged in by 0.3% of active members (have to say, I’m not surprised as I’ve never understood that feature, and if I have I always apologized before, during and after doing it.)
I’ve been actively using Facebook for a good year now, and even moreso once they published an API that lets anyone create a social application that works with other Facebook users (Scrabulous addict here if anyone wants to play!)
A lot has been written about Facebook and I’m not going to add my little voice to the blabbitybla fest about it, but I do have to say that I find it incredible how a service that’s focused on friend-to-friend interactions has turned into such a juggernaut. You can’t do anything on Facebook without some friends who are also users and agree to connect with you. It’s such a delicious irony that Facebook grew so large by limiting adoption. It’s like one of those exclusive clubs that becomes more popular simply because not everyone can get into it.
It’s also amazing how quickly third-party applications have taken off. It appears that Facebook is not far from most of its traffic coming from features that its users are creating for each other. The user-generated content trend is evolving into one of user-generated experiences.
Posted on October 10th, 2007 No comments
As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be on a panel discussion at tomorrow’s Networked Journalism Summit. People often ask me for numbers that indicate how well our sites are doing. Since the Californian is a privately held company and isn’t required to release that kind of stuff, I often can’t give anything out.
This time I received permission in advance to disclose some interesting stats that show the power of social networking, blogging and user-generated content in a local market. For context, Bakersfield has 330,000 residents — so take that and the hyper-local focus of our efforts into account. (It ain’t no New York City!)
- Our network of 9 Bakersfield-focused sites now generates 4.2 million monthly pageviews, and community and social networking make up at least 20% of that. (If you exclude Bakersfield.com and count only niche sites, the community traffic is 90-100% as the bulk of the content comes from users themselves).
- On Bakersfield.com in particular, community generates 20-25% of total trackable pageviews. As some of our features use Flash and Ajax which doesn’t translate into pageviews, we believe the total number is probably a lot higher.
- Anyone in the community can have a user profile and blog through our sites. Since we started offering this 3 years ago, 26,000 users have created public profiles (8% of the Bakersfield population), and they have created 39,000 profile friend connections between each other. We haven’t even begun to tap into the power of these connections and have a lot of ideas (for example, targeted promotion of self-serve advertising to friends of friends with shared interests).
- There have been 124,884 comments on blog postings along since we began offering blogging approximately 18 months ago.
- Much of the growth in community is coming from our niche community sites, such as Northwest Voice and Bakotopia. For example, 46% of profiles and 57% of blogs on the network are on the niche sites.
These brands transcend delivery mechanism, as most of our them have advertising-supported print components too. And one even has a CD! Here’s a breakdown of our print circulation by brand:
The Bakersfield Californian
60,000 daily, 70,000 Sunday
28,000 every two weeks
28,000 every two weeks
(For context, Tehachapi’s population is 10,000, or 40,000 in the surrounding mountainous area.)
17,000 every week; 13,000 home delivered, 5,000 in racks
10,000 every other week
You can view samples of some of our print publications here:
Posted on October 8th, 2007 No comments
Gotta love YouTube! I’ve been waiting to see this Muppets rendition of “Baby Face” by clucking chickens for 20 years.
Posted on October 7th, 2007 No comments
I’ll be at Jeff Jarvis’ Networked Journalism Summit in New York City next week, speaking on a short panel and, more importantly, participating in a day of discussions about how to take participatory/social/networked media to the next level.
I have to tip my hat to the organizers of this conference. In the interests of getting past show-and-tell and into next steps, they’ve banned presentations. In place of that, they ferreted out information from attendees in advance, which you can read here. All of the attendees are supposed to read up on each others’ achievements and check out each others’ sites ahead of time so that when we meet, we can talk about how to make everything better. And they’re promising to “gong” anyone who bogs things down with useless, unending debates about things like whether bloggers are better than mainstream media reporters or vice-versa (the old “Batman could beat up Superman” fight — spare us!) Every conference should be this way.
Some of the profiles were based on phone interviews with David Cohn. You can read his writeup of me here, although I have to warn you that I was a little under the weather during that call and, thus, just a bit unfocused (what else is new). Since we have so much going on in so many directions in Bakersfield, it’s difficult to know how to answer basic questions like “what is your goal” (reaction: which one?) and “what was your biggest mistake” (how to choose?), so I tend to give generic answers like “we’re growing audience and looking for ways to monetize it.” There are of course many different bullets points underneath those goals, but they can never be summarized in one interview. Thus — the need for a discussion-orientedsummit.
I’m sure David and others will be blogging about some of the more interesting tidbits of the conference. I’ll try to post a few things here, too. Based on the list of attendees, there should be some inspiring stuff. I’m already learning about interesting new sites and services, such as Blog Talk Radio, which lets anyone create their own call-in talk radio show online. They have 3,000 hosts already. I’m also interested to learn more about an upcoming service called MixedInk, which claims to let an infinite number of people contribute to a single news story or op/ed piece, wiki-style. Creator David Stern talks about that on the summit site.
Posted on October 7th, 2007 No comments
I spoke last week at a Georgia Associated Press seminar, on the invitation of Augusta Chronicle managing editor Elizabeth Adams (a belated thanks to Elizabeth for helping organize a great lineup, and for all of her hospitality!)
Some of the attendees expressed an interest in reading my presentations in more detail, so I’ve uploaded them to this site. You can read them via the following two links:
- Social Media: Letting the audience speak for itself.
- Street Cred: Using print and “terrestrial marketing” to drive audience and revenue.
The first is the same old stuff I’ve been talking about for three years, but updated with more recent info. It’s all good, but nothing new if you read my blog regularly or have heard me or other Californian employees speak.
The second is all new. It addresses a lot of questions that people are increasingly asking us. Namely:
- How to grow local audience online, and how local “street level” marketing fits in.
- How we marketed Bakotopia.com at launch and how that’s changed over time. (There’s a more personal back-story to that — if you want to know just ask me sometime!)
- The Bakotopia print edition.
- How print circulation is increasing with niche products even as it decreases with general interest products.
- The importance of branding and brand identity.
- How niche brands can span delivery mechanisms (print, online, CDs, mobile, etc.)
Speaking of print, our licensing arm Participata.com is now providing some sample print editions for two of the Bakomatic-powered brands here:
That includes some sample editions Bakotopia magazine. I encourage anyone with an interest in Bakotopia to check out the magazine, because it really shows how social networking drives print pickups and vice-versa. If MySpace had local magazines all over the country, they would look like this.