Posted on December 19th, 2007 No comments
This little-known independent newspaper in southeastern Texas relaunched its Web site in October to focus on conversation around news, using the Bakomatic social media platform that they purchased from Participata LLC and The Bakersfield Californian, as well as some of their own PHP applications.
If you’ve ever used Bakotopia.com, the site we launched nearly three years ago (and which Bakomatic grew out of), you’ll see some familiar elements — such as recent blog posts and comments, “Seen on the Scene” photo galleries and user profile interests. I’m of course proud to see our ideas and technology extended to other markets in this way, but Victoria didn’t stop there. They also integrated discussion into news stories, and they dynamically bubble up the most talked-about stories right to their home page.
What I love about the Advocate is how it harnesses interest in news to engage people in other ways. Thanks to the user profiles that show up next to each comment, conversations around news inevitably bleed into other types of community interaction around user profiles and blogs. For example, you may see a comment from someone about a school story, click on his profile picture and find out that he has the same hobbies as you do. This is a perfect example of how newspapers can position themselves as not just providers of local news and information, but also as the glue of their community. You may go to a newspaper site to read a story someone e-mails you, then find yourself engaged in conversation and social networking quite by accident.
Many people were involved in the success of the Advocate’s relaunch, but in my opinion the real champion from the beginning is Dan Easton, the newspaper’s Vice President of Interactive.
I will never forget the e-mail I received from Dan one year ago, when I was tired and jet-lagged after traveling to London to speak at the World Association of Newspapers conference. He’d heard me speak at an Inland Press Association conference and wanted to know if we’d thought about collaborating with other independent newspapers like them. I think the phrase “in the spirit of open-source” came up at least three times in that conversation, and he was clearly on fire about community and open source (which makes sense — at a high level, open source development is one type of user contributed content that just happens to be code). After agreeing to wait a day to let me get over jet-lag, we continued e-mailing ideas back and forth at a rapid pace, and they eventually purchased Bakomatic last spring.
As we all build upon successes and our work becomes more established within our companies, perhaps we independents will be able to work more collaboratively in the future. This is already happening to an extent with fully open-source platforms like Drupal, but almost never for proprietary newspaper-specific stuff. And it’s not exactly easy to do that, as it would require a commitment by multiple independent news organizations to work in that way and staff around it.
I’m personally too busy to manage that myself, and I don’t know when we would be able to do it, if ever. We still intentionally operate in scrappy “Rebel Alliance” mode, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. But I always enjoy talking to people who see that same future possibility, because it is something that should and hopefully will happen one day if independent newspapers are going to survive. Dan Easton is one of those people.
By the way, in case you’ve never heard of Victoria, it’s a city of about 100,000 that is just south of Austin and southeast of San Antonio. Here it is on a map:
Posted on December 13th, 2007 No comments
Last month, Google announced a program called OpenSocial that lets anyone create social “applications” that users of social networking sites can use within those sites. It was largely seen as a response to Facebook applications, which can be created by anyone and promoted to Facebook users. You know that Google, always wanting to be at the center of every business transaction while supposedly doing no evil.
Facebook apps had an estimated 14 million users in August, which is amazing given that they only started to become available in May 2007.
Now we also want to share the benefits of our work by enabling other social sites to use our platform architecture as a model. In fact, we’ll even license the Facebook Platform methods and tags to other platforms. Of course, Facebook Platform will continue to evolve, but by enabling other social sites to use what we’ve learned, everyone wins — users get a better experience around the web, developers get access to new audiences, and social sites get more applications.
LinkedIn, Friendster and Bebo are following suit, with Bebo using Facebook’s protocols. (Um, sorry, but I just have to say — have you honestly ever heard of Bebo? Are you “Beboing” right now? Hats off to their marketing people for using this announcement to get their name out there. And for the record, Crunchbase says Bebo has 34 million registered users and 7 billion monthly pageviews. So I guess my unfamiliarity makes me not cool, or maybe too old.)
Hey, you Time Magazine people, are you listening? Last year you declared “You” to be the Person of the Year. Now the Word of the Year is OPEN.
Posted on December 8th, 2007 No comments
Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation recently talked at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society about what the Knight Foundation is trying to accomplish with the Knight News Challenge. This is a $25 million contest with awards that will be given over 5 years. It’s into its second year now, and winners will be declared in early 2008.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m involved in two entries, one directly and one indirectly. That’s not why I’m passing this on, and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to stack votes.
Regardless of who wins in the next round, I’m genuinely inspired by the objectives of this initiative and others like it. I want to see the best ideas get funded that have the most potential to sustain the practice and values of journalism in the future. If that wasn’t my goal, given my background and connections, there are plenty of other things I could be doing today that would be easier paths to money than working for an independently owned local newspaper. I do what I do today because I care deeply about journalism, its values and its benefits to society. That’s totally independent of the outcome of this particular contest.
What Gary outlined at the Berkman Center is what all journalists should strive for in the digital era. And truthfully, in the long run we shouldn’t need to rely on awards and grants to make this happen (although that is one great way to jump-start innovation without relying on traditional venture capital, which has its own price).
Here’s the quote from Gary that struck me:
“We really hope that the people who are inventing the latest digital information technologies care about things like ethics, and principles, and freedom of speech and press, and fairness, and separation of advertising from news, and news from opinion. These are vital to journalists.
And if journalists aren’t involved in the creation of tools that everyone is using, and instead the tools are being created by technology companies that frankly don’t understand, don’t know about or perhaps don’t care about those things, that gives us pause. So we’re hoping that we can lead the news industry into the digital revolution to help them gather new audiences, keep new audiences, and keep not only their perspective, but their important position.
If newspapers die, that’s one thing. If the news and information function in a community dies, that’s a horribly different thing. And that’s something I think that we should … work to make sure does not happen.”
Yes! That’s why I work in journalism, and came back to it after 6 years at a pure tech company. I hope there are more and more of us in that boat over time and that together we create a flotilla, and then a proud armada, that collectively preserves democracy and free speech around the world.
I know there are people with similar aims at non-news companies. Call me quaint, but I just feel like an industry that has consistently upheld these values for two centuries is best equipped to carry them into the digital world. But we can’t assume that this will happen on its own. If you’re reading this blog and others like it, it’s your responsibility as well as mine to make sure that happens.
You can view the Gary Kebbel’s entire speech on the Berkman Center’s web site.
Posted on December 7th, 2007 No comments
An interesting job popped into my mailbox today that a) you might be interested in, and b) says a lot about the evolving role of the journalist in the digital age.
Marc Fest, director of communications for the Knight Foundation, is looking for an Online Community Manager to create a “vibrant online discussion community” focused on “journalism excellence, communities and systematic, transformational change.” This person will live and breathe in the blogosphere, serving as “Knights eyes, ears and voice”.
You can read the full job posting here.
Is this a marketing job? I would say yes, in part. Is it a journalism job, too? Most definitely. And in my opinion it speaks volumes about an entirely new skill set every journalist needs to have in order to be successful in today’s media landscape.
Fundamentally it’s about something we should have been doing more of in this industry long ago: listening, responding and carrying on a conversation — all while keeping people informed with the information and knowledge that we glean.
Once upon a time, a journalist was expected to go out and talk one on one with a handful sources to generate stories. That’s largely where public interaction ended.
Things are different now, and changing by the hour. Increasingly we see journalists being thrust into the role of online discussion leaders, managers and moderators. It happens whether or not they want it to. In Bakersfield this has become so important that we hired a full-time online community coordinator a year ago, with very good results.
On our other social networking sites, which are separate from the newspaper and in many cases have their own print publications, “community management” tasks easily take up 30% of the editor’s time. For that reason we find ourselves referring to those people less and less as editors, and more often with new terms such as Brand Evangelist, Brand Manager and even Product Manager.
These jacks-of-all-trades are constantly out there interacting with the community, often publicly, online and in person. While they still edit content for online and print, they also do a lot of things that they were never taught in journalism school: for example, giving video overviews of what’s in the next issue. If I had to choose an archetype that symbolizes their jobs, it would be Dick Van Dyke as the one-man band in Mary Poppins, playing every conceivable instrument simultaneously while also carrying on a conversation. (Yes, I realize that analogy makes me look childish. No, I don’t care. I have young kids so deal We regularly watch The Muppets, too.)
Once you invite public conversation into a newspaper Web site — surprise, the audience expects to be able to converse with YOU! And that takes time to do right.
Most news organizations don’t plan ahead for this and either end up scrambling to hire someone they didn’t anticipate, or in a few sad cases pulling all public discussion off their sites. Ultimately they have to re-enable conversation to remain competitive because the people formerly known as the audience expect everything to be less like 60 Minutes and more like Oprah.
By the way, if you’re interested in this Knight Foundation job, please don’t respond to me. They ask that you send resume and examples of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. See the job posting for details.
Posted on December 6th, 2007 No comments
There’s been a little ping-pong this week between Travis Henry from YourHub.com and Steve Outing, formerly of The Enthusiast Group. It was all spurred by Outing’s E&P piece about what he learned after his plans around participatory sports media didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped. He mentioned YourHub in the middle, which caused some other bloggers to assume that YourHub is a failure (which Henry rightly points out is alive and growing).
I don’t really want to get into the middle of the personal disagreement between these two smart people (although I think they made up, as Travis just publicly invited Outing to beers), but I do find it a little sad that so many other bloggers with journalism backgrounds used it to mash up fact and opinion at such breakneck speeds.
Henry points out a few examples of this in his blog entry. That’s way more embarrassing to the field of journalism than the alleged lower quality of “citizen journalism.” It also bothers me that almost four years after The Northwest Voice launched, there are still some people in the traditional journalism field who feel threatened by the idea of regular people writing their own news for their own community.
So let me just recap what I’ve been saying all week. “The rumors of citizen journalism’s death are greatly exaggerated!”
After Outing’s column came out, I also received some inquiries into whether The Bakersfield Californian’s citizen media efforts plan to shut down (let’s all pile on, shall we?) And like Henry, I also responded in kind by pointing to the facts about our profitable print ad business tied to The Northwest Voice.
I also shared some thoughts about why online-only citizen media ventures are having more trouble than online-print combos. In my opinion, the challenges of the Enthusiasts, Backfence and other online-only players have nothing to do with the value proposition of citizen media to consumers, who can’t get enough of it. It has everything to do with how hard it is to get local niche businesses to advertise online.
Niche products appeal to smaller businesses that aren’t as tech-savvy as national buyers. For this reason, a lot of online-only startups that are focused on topical and geographic niches may be ahead of the market in terms of what local advertisers are ready for. The best thing about a print product like The Northwest Voice and YourHub is that advertisers relate to it and buy ad space, and that’s what Backfence and others were missing. In another five years that may not be the case and everyone will buy online ads first, which are cheaper and more targeted. But it is unfortunately today’s reality. It would be truly unfortunate if an entire industry abandoned the idea of regular people taking local media by the reigns simply because the online business model is still being developed.
Henry also talked about how annoyed he is at the peanut gallery of “citizen journalism experts” who increasingly look more like Luddites and prophets of doom. I have to agree here. The only people who I would consider close to being experts in this area are core contributors in citizen media products. They challenge most of our assumptions about the kind of local information people want and need to know, and what they value about citizen media that they’re not getting elsewhere.
The truth is that citizen media is something new and different. It overlaps a little with “Big J” Journalism, but mostly meets different needs that have long been ignored by big media companies. At a fundamental level, I don’t think these services are really about “journalism” in the minds of the people who use them. They’re really about connecting small groups of people who have shared interests, goals, geography and world views. And they’re about giving people a voice and a seat at the table in media. People love that, and so do advertisers when they’re aware of it.
“Success” or “failure” in this field should be measured first by how much community participation you spur from your target market, and then whether you can harness that into a profitable enterprise that is self-sustaining. Everything else, including opinions about the caliber of journalism in citizen media products, is moot.
Posted on December 4th, 2007 No comments
A couple months ago, I succumbed to Apple’s marketing and switched my dying Palm Treo 650 to a brand spanking new iPhone. And for the record, I have to say that I really like it. The web browser is just as amazing as they promised, and the interface is fun and easy to use. I’m even getting used to the touchscreen “keyboard,” although my e-mails and messages do contain more typos than when I used the Treo. It is truly more than just a phone, and more like a next-generation mobile media device that also happens to have a phone and Internet connectivity built-in.
So with that out of the way, I want to take a few moments to talk about what no Apple fanatic will tell you: where the iPhone absolutely sucks! Because I’m a regular consumer and not a member of the .Mac religion, I’m allowed to do this.
First, I simply cannot believe how bad phone-to-phone picture messaging is on the iPhone. I’ve spent the last 3 years training every member of my family to send and receive pictures by cell phone. It’s a great way for us all to stay in touch, and I estimate that we all now collectively snap and send 5 pictures to each other a week.
On my Treo (and most cell phones), I’d get a text message, tap a link and see the picture right there. Then I’d snap my own picture and send it back. It was a fun, easy and addictive way to stay in touch.
On the iPhone, all of that goes out the window. I need to pull out a pencil and paper to write down two impossible to remember codes, then go to a URL from a computer and type it all in. Don’t believe me? Here’s a real example of a picture message I received on my phone from a family member yesterday:
Yes, you read correctly. In place of a picture, it says, “You can view my message via the Internet at viewmymessage.com using Msg ID (impossible to remember alphanumberic code) and password (another impossible to remember alphanumeric code)”. And no, you can’t click on anything to take you to that content in the iPhone’s integrated Web browser.
Perhaps worst of all, if you did write down all of that information, you can’t actually view the message on your phone from viewmymessage.com because it uses Flash, and Flash won’t work on the iPhone.
For something that Apple CEO Steve Jobs lauded as the most amazing product Apple had ever produced after the original Mac, I just have to say ,”Wow, you’re out of touch!” Apparently he doesn’t use picture messaging.
But wait, there’s more!
On my Treo, I found myself constantly taking notes on the little thumb-keyboard of simple things like books to read, shopping lists, and even occasional meeting notes. When I synched my Treo, all of those notes would copy to the computer so that I could bring them up on my screen. The reverse was also true: I could type notes into the Palm desktop, and any changes or new notes would synch over to the Treo.
How does this experience compare on the iPhone? It doesn’t. There’s now way to get notes off your phone, or from your computer to your phone! This means that those 126 notes sitting on my Treo are currently inaccessible on the most advanced phone ever created in human history. I’m nervous about adding important notes to the iPhone because they could be lost. I can’t believe Apple engineers spent even a nanosecond of time building the notes feature into the phone and didn’t provide a way to synch. Apparently Steve Jobs also never used notes on a phone, let alone the iPhone.
(By the way, I heard in one of the big Apple rumor blogs that iPhone notes will sync with some future feature of its Leopard operating system. Still, that’s no excuse to launch a dead-end product like iPhone notes).
Third — and this one really blows me away — while you can read documents on the Web that are saved in PDF, Excel or Word formats, you can’t save them to read later. In fact, there is no way to explicitly save something to your phone that you can’t put into iTunes or iPhoto — not from the web, not from your computer, not from anywhere. The “disk mode” that most iPods allow doesn’t work on the iPhone. As the villain in The Princess Bride once said, “Inconceivable!”
The PDF issue is really more of a missed opportunity than a true “suck” because the iPhone’s PDF viewer is very good. You can zoom in and out of documents, page through with the flick f your thumb, and even view PDFs in landscape (they become wider when you tilt the phone, just like Web pages). It’s so good that whenever I look at a PDF on the iPhone I think it would be perfect for reading electronic books or newspapers. Hmm … there’s a thought. Maybe they don’t allow saving yet because they plan to offer electronic books through iTunes in the future, and for a fee?
My final big complaint has been well documented, but I’ll say it anyway. No Flash player, and no Java reader. I don’t know if Apple excluded these two increasingly important Web tools because of space, lack of licensing agreements or for some other reason, but they really hamper the online experience and I hope they add them soon. I’d say that easily 30% of the sites I visit incorporate some sort of Flash experience, and usually on the home page.
All that said, I know that this is the first version of the iPhone. As a digital products person myself, I understand now everything is perfect in version 1. I think these things bug me so much for two reasons:
1) Apple doesn’t talk about them, but Steve Jobs continues to wave his hands extolling the iPhone as the most amazing phone, gadget, handheld computer, etc. of all time. It seems a little hypocritical, because in some ways it is also the worst of all time. If you’re going to make claims like that, at least have the decency to point out some of the jaw-dropping flaws in your product. Acknowledge that they exist and say you’re working on them (and follow through). Then people like me will stop wining and start hoping more.
2) The “Mac Faithful” who define Apple don’t talk about these issues, for the most part. As someone who recently switched from mostly using PCs to mostly using Macs, I’m a big fan of Apple. But in exchange for my faith and the higher price I pay for their supposedly superior products, I expect them to work miracles. And when they don’t, I want them to own up like any other consumer tech company. With Mac Fanatics that desire for accountability seems to be lost and Apple can do no wrong. Maybe we should start calling them the Blind Faithful?
Here’s the iPhone 2.0!